A subject matter expert demonstrates the composition of comets to students in Nunavut through Connected North

Published: May 15th, 2015

TORONTO – It was about a year ago when Cisco Canada launched a fairly ambitious project called Connected North.

The Toronto-based networking and collaboration vendor developed an initiative focused on delivering immersive and interactive education along with healthcare services to communities in the Nunavut territory. This program would incorporate high-definition two-way video and collaboration technologies from Cisco and other third partner providers.

Cisco Canada's Willa Black
Cisco Canada’s Willa Black

One year later, and the director of Connected North Willa Black told CDN during the Cisco Connect show that the program is now operating in 10 communities in Nunavut.

“One of the biggest challenges is keeping these kids in school. Currently in 43 northern communities 75 per cent of the students drop out by grade 10. We have to solve this issue by making the classroom more exciting,” Black said.

Another aspect of the Connected North strategy is to provide healthcare services. Black, who is also the vice-president of corporate affairs at Cisco, found that there is very little healthcare support in the territory specifically to mental health.

“The social conditions in the north make it too difficult to get people up there. But I thought we can do something about it through the use of technology,” she said.

Black communicated the issue with the Hospital for Sick Children and Tele-Link, a video psychiatric service. She then acquired the funding for this from the RBC Foundation and Connected North is now able to provide children a high definition Telepresence for psychiatric care that is very collaborative in nature.

The Connected North program has been able to provide students subject matter experts in the basics such as math but also astronauts and in one instance a drama troop from Minnesota that introduced the students to Shakespeare. ”We are able to beam these people into the classroom on-demand. They do not have labs in these schools or libraries so a biology teacher doesn’t have any frogs to dissect for example. We can connect them to people who can do these things and the kids really respond to that,” she said.

The Connected North program also expanded into the development of teachers. Black learned there is limited professional development and training for teachers. This led to a very high turnover rate and in most cases these teachers are the only positive adult relationship the kids have.

The teacher professional development program through Connected North has now touched 60 teachers in five schools. For next year, the goal is to reach all 490 teachers in the area through an organized virtual professional development program.

One of the initial goals of the Connected North program was to identify three Northern schools and match them up with schools in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto with one hour sessions per week. Black said that the team was able to accomplish this and it has brought about “true nation building.”

“It’s the belief of kids in the North that no one cared about them or their culture. For the kids in the south they found out that these students are just like them,” she said.

Black believes that initiatives such as Connected North can enable career mentoring and bring about plans for job fairs. Connected North did a virtual career fair where one partner Canadian North Airlines was looking for people who can speak Inuktitut. Students were introduced to jobs such as Pilot, flight attendant and baggage handler. “This gave these kids a sense for what it’s like and it will help them stay in school,” Black added.

For next year the Connected North virtual job fair wants to expand to mining and tourism industries.

Black also said Cisco is exploring taking this program to remote areas of Saskatchewan and Manitoba for 2016.

“There are 600 aboriginal schools and there is no reason why we can’t be in every single one of them to deliver education, mental health and teacher development.”