Nunavut launched a program Wednesday that uses technology to bring experts from across North America into classrooms in Iqaluit.
"We don't have a science lab at our school; we don't have a library," said Don Peters, principal of Iqaluit's Aqsarniit Middle School.
"To be able to connect to people down south has been really helpful for our programs."
The $1.6-million program was developed by Cisco Canada and uses an interactive, high-definition video link. For example, it will allow students who have never seen a frog join a university biology lab to see one being dissected on a 55-inch TV screen right in their classroom.
The link works both ways.
It also brings the North to southern students and will allow them to join in the same lessons as their Arctic peers with time for questions and conversation. For many, it will be their first look at Inuit traditions such as kayak-building.
"We had an elder explain how they speared even whales and they actually built it (kayak) there in the shop," said Peters.
"(The kids) were just captivated. He took his spear out and showed how they threw it. You could hear the kids on the other side going 'Whoa!'"
The link began as a pilot project last fall after a former Nunavut education official, who had returned to the south, got in touch with his old colleagues to talk about a contact he had just made with Cisco. Cisco had some new technology and ideas about how it could be integrated into education and was looking for a school to work with.
"This program is really about how we could look at immersive, interactive technologies to impact education," said Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Canada.
"We know that our technology and our people can make a dramatic impact on these scenarios. Our goal in all of this is to show people what's in the realm of the possible."
Cisco brought the technology and provided its contacts to a group called Virtual Researchers On Call, a non-profit group that links scientists with schools. Together, they were able to plan a series of online lessons that integrate smoothly with the Nunavut curriculum.
That's what makes the project unique, said Peters.
"What is new is the Cisco people have been able to work with our teachers and we're able to set up experts week by week to visit our classrooms as we roll through our curriculum. Everything that we do is all connected to our curriculum."
Early results are encouraging. Preliminary results from a York University study on the program suggest students are enthusiastic about the weekly online lessons.
Perhaps best of all, attendance has increased 16 per cent — a crucial improvement in a jurisdiction where only 25 per cent of Inuit kids graduate from high school.
Kawale sees potential for the program in remote schools across the country. Plans are underway to set it up in another Nunavut community and to start another in the Northwest Territories.
"We're going to encourage our partners and customers — (we) call it the adopt-a-school program — to see what we can do across the country," he said.
"We're really hoping that we show people what's in the realm of the possible and wake people up that we can fundamentally change education in the North — or any remote community."
It could have other applications as well.
Iqaluit is already planning to use the service to improve mental-health counselling for high school students. And northern teachers have already used it for professional development workshops.
Online lessons, no matter how interactive, won't ever replace teachers, said Peters. But in a place with a lot of disadvantages, they can make teaching easier.
"It's always relevant," he said. "It's not just hooking up and talking to someone."
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton