Channel partners are typically involved with the delivery of technology, integration of systems and providing consulting and maintenance services. However, once in a while a partner’s involvement in a project goes beyond these confines.

Such is the case with the computer products and consumer electronics distributor D&H Canada and its association with the Connected North program. The initiative, spearheaded by Cisco Systems Inc., uses interactive video conferencing and collaboration tools to connect students in remote northern Aboriginal and Inuit communities with other students, instructors, subject matter experts and even healthcare practitioners across Canada.

You might say that D&H went out of its comfort zone.

“Our involvement was not about technology,” said Greg Tobin, general manager, for D&H Canada. “We didn’t install or provide any equipment for this project.”

Instead, he said, D&H assumed the role of conducting fundraising and awareness activities in support of the program and to sponsor a Connected North installation in a particular school, the Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit, Nunavut. This included reaching out to its network of some 4,000 reseller partners, collecting donations during the company’s recent Montreal Technology Show last month and providing signage and informative video clips explaining how the program benefits students in Canada’s northern territory.

Raising awareness and funds is a critical component of the program if it is to continue providing schools in Nunavut the ability to enhance their curriculum by enabling students to gain access to connectivity technologies that link and expose them to the rest of Canada, says Kelly Hodgins, business development manager for the channel at Cisco. The company works with other partners to have its TelePresence technology, usually deployed in enterprise organizations to facilitate video conferencing, installed in the classrooms to bring high-definition, two-way video communication to the students.

The program also involves Partners In Research’s Virtual Researcher on Call (VROC) program which brings live researchers into classrooms through the use of videoconferencing and SSi Micro Ltd., which donated prioritized bandwidth for the project.

Other organizations involved include:

  • Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
  • The Department of Education of the Government of Nunavut
  • The Department of Health of the Government of Nunavut
  • York University
  • Sheridan College
  • Canadian North
  • The Royal Bank of Canada

Nunavut is about a four-hour plane ride from Toronto. Its temperatures are below the freezing point for eight months and its very remote. Dropout rates average around 75 per cent by the time students reach grade eight, and the territory’s number of mental health issues is higher than in the general Canadian population.

Authorities hope to put a dent on these numbers by making Internet connectivity more readily available in educational institutions and healthcare facilities. A study by York University on the impact of the program indicates that students and teachers have a positive view of the initiative. As many as 89 per cent of students reported that remote learning experience made science more enjoyable and 81 per cent said they felt they learned more in virtual sessions than they did through traditional classroom methods.

“The physical geography of our communities is always a challenge and Connected North allows us to literally connect our classrooms with expertise in other jurisdictions,” said Paul Quassa, Minister of Education, Nunavut. “This means, for example, we can have two-way interaction between a scientist and students in real time.”

Two other schools, the Deh Gah School in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, and John Arnalukjuak High School in Arviat, Nunavut — will be joining the program in September this year.

At Aqsarniit Middle School, which serves about 300 Grade 6, 7 and 8 students, teachers report at increase in student participation in classroom activities and a drop in absences, said Tobin.

“Technology is the easy part. Once you install it, it’s there to be used” said Hodgins. “But the program requires awareness and continued funding to keep it running and to reach more classrooms.”

“The biggest cost is likely Internet service and content as opposed to hardware,” said Randy Churchill, product manager for D&H. “Internet and content plus service and support will probably come to $50,000.”

Still, that amount is smaller compared to flying in educators and experts from elsewhere in Canada to Nunavut on a regular basis, said Debbie Dennis, product account manager for Cisco.

“With TelePresence, students are able to connect almost on demand,” she said. “With additional help from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, they are also able to obtain one-on-one videoconferencing sessions with healthcare and mental health practitioners.”

Normally, healthcare practitioners would fly to the area only once every six months, she said.

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