Native American Studies prof goes online

By KEVIN KNAPEK/Montana State News

For Kristin Ruppel, associate professor of Native American Studies, following her bliss allowed everything to fall into place.

Kristin Ruppel  of MSU Native American Studies is leading the charge on the development of online education opportunities.
Kristin Ruppel of MSU Native American Studies is leading the charge on the development of online education opportunities.

Ruppel wanted to be closer to her parents who live in Twin Bridges. So she decided to make her way back to Montana. Before graduating with her doctorate, she had an opportunity to buy a gutted-out log cabin in Virginia City.

“Eventually, my parents and I went in on it together, and since then, my husband and I, but mostly my husband, have made it livable. So coming to Bozeman was really the tail wagging the dog. I just knew I wanted to be back in Montana,” Ruppel said.

At the time she was hired, the NAS department at Montana State University had been considering the idea of setting up online courses. The plan was in place, but lacked any staff with adequate time to get the program rolling. In 2006, Ruppel, along with the NAS department heads proposed to the university provost that they support the program by allowing funds to support the development of classes through the NAS department.

Saralyn Sebern, who was an NAS-tribal liaison at the time, worked with Ruppel in researching what worked and what did not. The research required Ruppel to visit tribal colleges in Montana to see what she would find useful from the tribal school’s perspective.

When all the research was completed, it was decided that Ruppel and her team would move ahead.

“Out of those conversations, we decided to move ahead with a graduate certificate program in NAS, which was the first of its kind in the country as far as I know,” Ruppel said. She developed and taught the first of several NAS online courses here at MSU, and has been chair of the program ever since.

Ruppel has her doctorate in anthropology with significant post-graduate work in conservation biology and ecology. Her MA is an interdisciplinary degree (the first of its kind at Idaho State University) in anthropology and botany. The job and opportunity to teach NAS is what made Ruppel decide on her position here at MSU.

“I had studied federal Indian law and policy on my own for my doctoral research, so they asked me to teach that. Everything else I’ve learned on the job because it’s what was needed at the time,” she said.

Ruppel does not mind teaching online classes, but prefers a blended “hybrid” (face-to-face mixed with online portions) approach. According to her, the hybrid classes seem to be the most effective teaching and learning method.

Some critics might say that online classes are “easier” than the typical face-to-face classes, but Ruppel is quick to dispel that myth. “I am not hearing they are ‘easy.’ Like any course, it depends on how the course is set up. They can be more challenging than face-to-face courses simply because students have to be more self-motivated, and because they usually require substantial amounts of writing and reading,” Ruppel said. She also acknowledges that students can also “come to class” any time they want, which makes online courses more appropriate for students who work or have young children.

Stacey McMillan is a non-traditional student who is taking an online NAS literature class this semester. Even though it is not being taught by Ruppel, McMillan sees the flexibility of online classes.

“The largest benefit for taking online NAS classes is that I can fit them in around my busy work schedule. I don’t have a set time that I have to be in class,” McMillan said.

She enjoys being able to do the readings, required postings and papers in ways that work around her hectic schedule. Not only does McMillan work, she is a single mother of two.

“The main reason I am taking online classes is because there is no need for me to find babysitters or miss work,” McMillan said. She acknowledges that the flexibility is great, but the workload involved with online classes is still pretty hefty.

Ruppel agrees that having the technology and flexibility of being able to work from anywhere is the largest benefit from teaching online classes. “It can also be a drawback—you can never get away from it!” she said jokingly.

Skeptics of online courses feel that students will act differently in what they say in person versus what is posted online. Ruppel tends to be split on this argument.

“Yes, sometimes, and sometimes that’s to the detriment of the class as a whole. Students need to apply the same rules of civility to their online discussions as they do (or should do) in the physical classroom. And they should expect to be called out for it if they can’t maintain a civil discussion,” Ruppel said.

McMillan confirmed this thought by saying, “I do think in online classes you can be a bit more candid than you would in a traditional classroom environment. Some may find it easier to post their true thoughts given that there aren’t actual people in the room while you make your comment—no facial expression to read and its a bit more impersonal.”

Josh Mori is familiar with Ruppel’s work at MSU.

“I have taken more classes from her than I can remember, and have enjoyed them all. I think one of her strong points as an instructor is that she doesn’t try and over teach or go outside of her abilities, which are very broad. She allows her students to be guided to understanding instead of being told how to think,” Mori said.

Mori has been working with Ruppel since 2008. His first collaboration with Ruppel was an indigenous film class in 2011. He was still a graduate student, and believes that it was the first time he was a part of the planning process and had an understanding of how he could have a small contribution to class from an administrative standpoint.

“I created a course that the university thought was an online course but we met in a classroom. I did have one student join us every class from Chicago via Skype, so that was fun,” Mori said. “I am also tentatively working on a chapter in a book she [Ruppel] is writing right now.”

MSU has been encouraging Ruppel and the NAS department to offer more courses online. “What we decide to put online is up to us, and there are certain courses (such as our graduate theory and method courses) that we’ve decided wouldn’t work well as online courses,” Ruppel said. Those classes will be left as face-to-face.

Josef Verbanac of the English department sees what Ruppel has accomplished with online courses at MSU. Even though he does not work directly with Ruppel, he was full of praise when talking about the online structure of the NAS department. “The NAS department has set a positive model of working towards outreach education,” Verbanac said.

This semester Ruppel was able to step away from the online teaching. “I oversee our online courses, which are currently all being taught by adjuncts (most of whom are graduates of our master’s program. I may teach my ‘Native America: Dispelling the Myths’ course again next spring,” Ruppel said.

So where does this technology of online classes lead students at MSU? “I see more virtual classrooms in the future, but I think there will always be a place for the face-to-face [classrooms],” Ruppel said.

When she is not dredging through her workload, Ruppel enjoys the peace and tranquility that her home offers. Weather permitting, she can be found hiking side-by-side with her family in the mountains near her home. Being outside with her loved ones and enjoying the beauty that Montana has to offer, has made this journey for Ruppel worth every minute.

– Edited by Cassidy Geoghegan

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