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York partners with Cisco to bring innovative learning to the North
published May 7, 2014

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Connected North Launch Event April 2. From left: Kevin Cougler, executive director of Partners in Research; Professor Celia Haig-Brown; Professor Ron Owston; Alesha Moffat; and Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Canada

Connected North Launch Event April 2. From left: Kevin Cougler, executive director of Partners in Research; Professor Celia Haig-Brown; Professor Ron Owston; Alesha Moffat; and Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Canada

A new initiative called Connected North is giving students in remote Aboriginal and Inuit communities in northern Canada a connection to the rest of the world.

In a partnership with high-tech giant Cisco Canada, which has invested $1.6 million into the program, York University is conducting a research project behind Connected North, a leading-edge program that delivers an immersive and interactive virtual education experience to northern classrooms.

Through high-definition two-way video communication and collaboration technology, students at the Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit, Nunavut can now meet with experts from across Canada face-to-face in real time. This is all thanks to Connected North’s content provider, Virtual Researcher on Call.

Another part of the program is Classroom Connect, where students are able to interact with a classroom of their peers thousands of kilometers away to share their culture and experiences. Just as they get exposed to southern experiences and gain access to experts from around the world, students on the other side of the live video feed get a rare peek into the Inuit traditions and the Arctic life.

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Since the pilot began last year, both teachers and students have viewed the program positively, according to preliminary results from York researchers led by Ron Owston, dean of the Faculty of Education, and Celia Haig-Brown, associate dean of Research and Professional Development at York.

“Our research looked at how engaged students were when they connected with experts via the videoconferencing technology,” Owston said. “We also looked at how teachers were able to integrate the virtual programming into their curriculum.”

Working with Owston and Haig-Brown are Faculty of Education doctoral student Alesha Moffat and senior research associate Herb Wideman. Moffat, a former teacher in Nunavut, travelled to Iqaluit as part of the evaluation.

“I appreciated the opportunity to work with staff and students at Aqsarniit Middle School,” Moffat said. “The experience of interviewing teachers, observing Connected North sessions, administering questionnaires to participating classes and co-authoring the interim report has been invaluable in relation to my own work.”

The findings show a majority of students have reported that the remote learning experience made science more enjoyable and said they felt they learned more in the virtual sessions than they did through traditional classroom learning.

VROC expert Ryan Marciniak demonstrated the compositions of comets to students at a Nunavut high school at the launch of Connected North. (Photo courtesy of Woodstock Sentinel Review)

VROC expert Ryan Marciniak demonstrated the compositions of comets to students at a Nunavut high school at the launch of Connected North. (Photo courtesy of Woodstock Sentinel Review)

Starting this fall, Connected North will also bring telepsychiatry and youth mental health services to Nunavut. For this initiative, Cisco has partnered with the RBC Foundation and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) to improve the mental health and well-being of children and youth living in the North.

With a $200,000 donation to SickKids, Shari Austin, RBC’s vice-president of corporate citizenship and the executive director of RBC Foundation, said they will help address the lack of access to mental health services in the region.

“Timely access to mental health specialists and treatment is critical,” she said. “By partnering with Cisco and SickKids, we will help deliver access to health experts in a region where these services might not be available otherwise.”

Willa Black, Cisco’s vice-president of corporate affairs, called the joint venture with York and other public and private organizations as “an ecosystem of strategic partners” to enhance education and health-care services in the North.

“The ability to connect people in real time – patients to doctors, teachers to mentors, students to other students and experts – is really a game changer,” she said. “Together, we are doing something that could have a powerful effect on driving meaningful solutions to the challenges in our remote northern communities, while bringing us all a little closer together as Canadians.”