Fostering the Renewal of Learning and Teaching in the Field of Aboriginal Issues: DIALOG’s Nomadic University

Lévesque, Carol

The Nomadic University is an innovative training program created in 2007 by the DIALOG network - Research and knowledge network relating to Aboriginal Peoples. It is one of our knowledge mobilization initiatives developed over the years to encourage the sharing of knowledge, skills and learning between the academic and Aboriginal milieus.

Through the Nomadic University’s activities, DIALOG offers interactive and dynamic teaching that fosters the development of a reflective and comprehensive understanding of Aboriginal issues. The training team for each session includes DIALOG researchers, students, and Aboriginal partners and reflects the inter-institutional, interdisciplinary and intercultural collaboration that characterizes DIALOG. The hands-on learning experience offered by the program occurs within the context of recognized academic curricula and enables students to obtain academic credits. The Nomadic University welcomes students from various universities, researchers, stakeholders, practitioners, civil society actors and the general public.

DIALOG’s Nomadic University was born out of a need in Québec, Canada and in the rest of the world, to develop alternative approaches to learning in the field of research relating to Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, although a growing recognition about the necessity to renew research methodologies and epistemologies reflecting Aboriginal worldviews exists and has influenced the development of research approaches and ethics guidelines respecting these views, mainstream courses provided within social sciences academic programs (undergraduate and post-graduate alike), in their frame and content fail to make the changes required to address this recognition. Furthermore, there remains, to this day, an unfulfilled demand in terms of training of non-aboriginal civil servants, practitioners and fieldworkers, who wish to gain greater knowledge about the history and effects of colonialism and to be better equipped for understanding Aboriginal cultures and adapt their practices accordingly. Animated by its vision, which aims at constructing a space for innovative discussion and exchange between First Peoples and academia, DIALOG has developed the Nomadic University: an innovative training program designed to offer a response to these needs.
DIALOG´s Objectives
  • To cultivate knowledge-sharing practices and the development of a collective, contextually grounded understanding of Aboriginal issues;
  • To contribute to building capacity (decision-making, analysis, critical thought) for each participant, members of the training team or students alike;
  • To experiment with the potentials of interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and trans-sector circulation and co-construction of knowledge to its fullest; and
  • To promote the development of just, egalitarian and equitable social relations through innovative collective learning opportunities.
The first of its kind in Québec and Canada, DIALOG’s Nomadic University program evolves with the participation of its aboriginal partners and academic members. This means that, as a first step, a proposal to set up a Nomadic University can be initiated by any of them, as long as the themes and issues addressed are relevant within the milieu where the session is intended to take place. So far, themes as varied as community sustainable development, territory and environment, aboriginal rights, urban issues, education, gender related issues or migration have been developed. Then experts, practitioners, researchers, students and other collaborators involved with the session’s selected themes are invited to contribute. They can act as organizers, mentor-evaluators, animators, lecturers, facilitators, discussants or training material developers. Great attention is paid to respecting and building upon every individual’s abilities and competencies within various learning environments and group dynamics. Next, advertisement about the upcoming Nomadic University is extended to the general public.
Academic credits for graduate, undergraduate and continuing education courses can be obtained provided that students complete assignments exploring issues for which they gained greater understanding throughout the session. Evaluation means are agreed upon by the students and the members of the training team who have been identified as evaluators. This flexible evaluation format is intended to foster reflexivity at the individual level but also at the collective level; and whenever feasible within the session, time for sharing and discussing questions flowing from this reflective process with other participants is reserved. But beyond evaluation, the session seeks to stimulate dialogue. Indeed, for each issue, question or theme addressed, time set aside for instruction and discussion (in plenary or small group) is evenly distributed.
This organizational format aims to maximize capacity building for all: it is firmly believed that everyone can learn from exchanging with people from different backgrounds. Typically, throughout the week, each training session gathers in total approximately 50 people. In all instances, the different facets of the connection between theory and practice, concepts and methods are explored both within and beyond the boundaries of the interests and needs of the participants. Field trips and cultural activities intended to foster dialogue and networking in different settings are also organized. Finally, in order to ensure the improvement of the Nomadic University as a program, a core group of participants, whose role is to draw parallels and distinctions between sessions during the discussions and to document the dynamics at play in its positive and challenging aspects, is part of every session.
Some of the outstanding results of DIALOG are:
  • Tremendous social mobilization raising the profile of aboriginal perspectives regarding aboriginal issues during and after each session of the Nomadic University (e.g. visibility in local medias, general public participation in the session, numerous demands to replicate the session in the same and other settings, etc.);
  • Opportunity for over 50 students whose educational program did not provide courses addressing aboriginal issues to gain access to such training;
  • Increased awareness and sensitivity to the diversity of the needs of aboriginal people was developed amongst students, practitioners and civil society participants;
  • 15 undergraduate and graduate students involved in the preparation of the training material. These students have had the opportunity to acquire synthesis and pedagogical competencies;
  • A growing body of literature and audio-visual material produced in preparation and in the aftermath of each session potentially widening the spin-offs generated by the Nomadic University;
  • Wider acknowledgement of the inescapable importance of considering aboriginal perspectives in the domains of policy-making and research (as increasingly visible in mainstream discourse);
  • The locally driven content requirement as key structuring themes for each session;
  • The training team composition and its non-hierarchical status within the learning environment;
  • The multiple involvement options for the participants;
  • The recognition of each individual’s participation, whatever shape it takes, as an essential component of the session;
  • The time allotted to and value placed on discussion and exchange, considered crucial components of innovative training programs, and;
  • The flexible evaluation formula established in consultation with students enables them to reflect upon their journey on their own terms.
Based on our experience, the Nomadic University recommends that other universities interested in developing a similar experience:
  • Encourage academics and community workers/civil servants to seek and build upon complementary domains of expertise, keeping in mind the importance to develop locally relevant yet conceptually sound understandings of social issues (co-construction of knowledge);
  • Be open to diverse learning methods, including location and alternative means of evaluation;
  • Make space for diversity and dialogue across disciplines, status and organizations within educational programs, and;
  • Try to go beyond status and hierarchies; recognize the value where it exists.

About the author

Carole Lévesque is a Professor at the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS), Urbanisation Centre, Culture, Society. In 2001 she founded the DIALOG Network and has been its director since. She holds a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Anthropology (Sorbonne, Paris) coupled with a Training Ph.D. in social psychology. Carole Lévesque has spent her entire career looking at aboriginal issues. For over 38 years she has worked closely with the aboriginal communities, organizations and institutions of Québec.
Her research is as expansive as it is diverse and has led her to spend several years with the Cree, Inuit, Naskapi and Innu communities. Over the past several years, she has regularly contributed to the establishment and development of the knowledge of the dossier Aboriginal. She is also co-director, with Edith Cloutier (Coalition of Aboriginal Friendship Centres Québec) of the new research alliance ODENA: Aboriginal and Quebec City.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government