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Virtual classrooms connect, inspire northern students

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The statistics starkly illustrate the educational challenges in Canada’s North: 30 per cent of students in the Northwest Territories drop out; three-quarters of all Inuit children do not graduate from high school.

Academic underperformance both arises from and worsens the economic and social problems in so many northern communities. And when opportunities do develop in the region, Inuit and Aboriginal youth find themselves disadvantaged in terms of seizing new employment possibilities.

Like other educators in the North, John Fanjoy recognizes the need for innovative approaches not only to keep young people in school, but to inspire them to get the most from their classroom experiences. That’s why in 2011, Mr. Fanjoy, vice-principal of  Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit, embraced the opportunity to conduct a pilot for the Connected North program, in partnership with Cisco Canada, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and SSi Micro, supported by a consortia of more than 30 private-sector partners.

“We saw the program’s great potential for giving our students the learning opportunities they deserve – the types of opportunities that students have in southern Canada,” he says.

High-definition two-way video made possible by Cisco’s TelePresence technology delivered science content such as lab activities, real-time tours of science facilities and talks by experts to students in Grades 6, 7 and 8, creating a dynamic educational experience.

“Our students were exposed to lessons and activities previously unimaginable for an isolated northern community,” says Mr. Fanjoy. “The students found the content very engaging, and we know that engaged students learn more.”

Connected North has expanded to more classrooms in the school and six other schools across the North. It also provides professional development sessions for northern teachers and two-way connections with classrooms in the rest of Canada, such as Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Aqsarniit’s sister school.

“The students collaborate on projects while sharing their cultures – learning about what it’s like to live in Toronto, compared to growing up as an Inuit person in Iqaluit,” Mr. Fanjoy explains. “We’ve done sessions with drum-dancing and throat-singing, and elders have spoken to the Toronto students about traditional ways of life.”

Connected North is one of the factors that has contributed to improved attendance at the school in the last couple of years, he adds. In a recent survey, 89 per cent of students said remote learning makes science “more enjoyable,” and 81 per cent said they “learned more in the virtual sessions” than through traditional classroom learning.