When Technology Connects North to South

I’m writing from a flight from Iqaluit to Ottawa after having spent two days as part of the Connected North launch with CISCO Canada. As you may know, most of the Arctic does not currently have the luxury of adequate or reliable bandwidth. I was quite surprised to not have cellular capabilities at all, except for the wifi at the hotel, which was spotty and slow, and I found myself really thinking about how this impacts learning, when teachers cannot access some of the amazing resources available online.

Lack of technology is just one of many serious challenges to education in the North: Fetal alcohol syndrome, suicide, addiction, and mental health rates are high. Only about 25% of students graduate from high school. To be quite blunt – I was pretty shocked that this was my country. The challenges are complex and motivation to change seems to be deteriorating. And yet, in my two days, I met with many amazing educators who go above and beyond in their efforts to support students, in terms of both academic and non-cognitive skill development. They are passionate about kids and learning, and they are working hard at solutions.

On my first night, I had dinner with one of these amazing educators named Caryn who teaches grade six at Aqsarnit Middle School. She came to life telling me stories about her students and their involvement in the Connected North Project. I happen to have a passion for passionate teaching, so I had to see her in action and meet her students.

Thanks to CISCO’s videoconferencing, I watched a “tour” of a museum in Pennsylvania as the students leaned in to see the artifacts on the screen and ask their questions. The next day, in Caryn’s grade six class, I watched as two classes exchanged traditions – the Aqsarnit students performed throat singing then the Alberta students from Busby School presented their “Busby alphabet” (inspired by the Prairie Alphabet, the class found images and words to show how they lived).

Following the videoconferencing exchange, I asked Caryn’s class: “What do you like about the Connected Classroom project?” One boy in the back blurted out, “Everything!” and the class nodded as if he had captured the only answer to my question. So I asked for all students to give me at least one benefit, and thanks to two volunteer note-takers, I can capture their exact thoughts here:

“Learning new things”

“Creating connections”

“Interacting with students”

“Seeing different people”

“Meeting professionals/Talking to pros”

“Telling others about our way of life”

“Learning about other people”

“Hearing stories”

“Real life conversations, no acting like on tv”

If I could sum it up, they want to talk to more students their age. The Vice Principal put it this way, “They get excited about the experts, but they really like meeting kids.”

I explained that I am in the business of making schools even better. So when I asked for their advice on how the Connected North project could improve, they came to life: the students wanted 3D (!!) and to exchange packages with students, like “things that represent Iqaluit” or photos, or their chocolate chip pancakes that they make for their community breakfasts. One girl suggested, “Could we actually meet the other students in person?” Once again, they want to deepen relationships.

So what’s next?

CAIS has three schools – in Ontario, Alberta and BC – lined up to partner with three schools in the North through the videoconferencing. CISCO has generously donated the equipment and expertise necessary to create the partnerships. Our teachers will collaborate on how to maximize the technology for learning, and the plan is to extend the program eventually to more schools. My hope?

The technology is the tool that will enable relationships: between teachers so they can plan curriculum together and share in professional development; between classes so they can swap stories and ideas; and now, having seen Caryn’s class in action, between students: to connect two different groups of students so they can have unscripted conversations

Caryn’s hope? In addition to the learning and relationship building, she is hoping that the schools can share successes and challenges. And what is one of her greatest needs? New books. There is no library at the school. One day, she asked how many students remember a parent reading to them, only one hand went up. (Remember, this is Canada. This is three hours by flight away from Ottawa.)

The woman spear-heading this project is Willa Black, a VP at CISCO. She has been up North many times and has more energy than most. As we said goodbye at the airport last night, I asked her what she wanted most from this project: I want to see transformational impact.

In my humble opinion, CISCO is really on to something here, and they have a great group of partners who are collaborating and viewing this project as a long-term investment. CAIS is new to this initiative, and our contribution is to provide partner schools. As we all know, technology in schools is only effective when in the hands of great teachers, so I am excited to introduce our CAIS community to the educators and students I met in Iqaluit this week.

Last week, I blogged about the need for students to gain an authentic experience on international service trips. Connected North is an opportunity for reciprocal benefits for students within our own country. Here is technology at use to deepen relationships between the North and South – as a national organization? That makes me proud.

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