Standing in front of a camera in white parkas, giggling, two Grade 6 girls at Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit take sips of water then start to sing, a guttural haunting harmony rising from their throats. On a big flat-screen TV, more than 2,500 kilometres away, a Grade 5-6 class in the tiny community of Busby, Alta., sits transfixed.
Minutes later, the Busby kids are on TV in Iqaluit talking about farming, horses and the West Edmonton Mall. Now it's the Nunavut students who are fascinated. "I want a horse," says one of the Grade 6 girls. "I want to live on a farm," says another.
There are no roads linking Nunavut's 25 communities, spread out over barren, treeless terrain that accounts for one-fifth of Canada's land mass. It takes two days and costs more than $5,000 to fly from some of these tiny hamlets to cities in the south, and polar bears are more common than libraries. In the capital, children can be seen in the streets playing on huge snow piles at all hours. Many come to classes hungry and tired, if they come at all.
But since the fall, classrooms at the middle school have been connected to schools in other parts of Canada through remote technology. Technology cannot redress the acute need for music teachers, guidance counsellors or physical education classes, but it can leapfrog over such absences, offering children a vision of the possibilities school can offer.
Failing to engage students has high costs. A March study of Canadian skills gaps by Miner and Miner Management Consultants found that if the graduation rates of native students from high school and postsecondary matched those of non-natives, we would have 100,000 more young native people in the work force over the next decade.
"If students aren't engaged, they won't come to school," said Aqsarniit Middle School principal Don Peters, who welcomes the telepresence technology as the latest in a raft of new programing he's introduced, including a breakfast program, culture camps, intramural sports and igloo building.
Linking northern classrooms with sister classes in the south helps build self-esteem, expands horizons, and introduces students in the south to northern culture, Mr. Peters says. "It's a cultural exchange between north and south."
Similar technology has been used to connect students in African countries over mobile phones, which have enabled peer-to-peer tutoring over social networks and connections to schools in Britain. At Aqsarniit, scientists, astronauts, even the Philadelphia Museum of Art, have come to the classroom on the windswept shores of Frobisher Bay via live video feed.
Initiated and funded through Cisco's Connected North program to the tune of $1.6-million, the technology enabled students to laugh at Greco-Roman busts, marvel at model cities, and have interactive sessions with music, science and art experts through the charity Partners In Research's Virtual Researcher on Call program.
"It helps me learn," says Aqsarniit Grade 6 student Jeffery Tikivik. "It makes me realize how fun it is."
For Mr. Peters, anything that engages the children and makes them want to come to school is crucial to preventing the high dropout and non-attendance rates in the region.
Nunavut faces the highest unemployment levels in Canada, paired with the lowest graduation rates.
Education and employment are viewed differently in the North, says Aqsarniit Grade 7 teacher Marc Robinson, whose first northern teaching post was in Arctic Bay, Nunavut. "In the south, parents stress the importance of going to school," he says. "But that's not always the case here."
Mr. Robinson focuses on making his classes hands-on and interesting.
The technology has enabled Mr. Robinson to close textbooks and switch on experts. A virtual science lesson, with a faraway specialist teaching students how to make a comet in their classroom, including a live question-and-answer period, has a much greater effect than reading a chapter on space.
The technology has also enriched Mr. Robinson's career. When he first came to the region after a stint of teaching in Japan, he had to adjust to a nine-month winter and school attendance of about 50 per cent. Now he can connect to teacher development workshops, linking educators spread across thousands of kilometres of barren snowy tundra via video to talk lessons and learning tools with experts.
"We're proving a model of how we can train in remote communities," says Cisco president Nitin Kawale, who readily admits his company is not just in it for the philanthropy. Cisco is struggling to find enough skilled employees, and Mr. Kawale hopes Connected North will help build his work force. "We're getting people interested in science, technology, engineering and math," he says. "Because right now, we have youth unemployment and industries with lots of job openings – there is this skills mismatch."
A study of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development earlier this year found that when it comes to digital problem-solving skills, native Canadians lag the non-native population by double digits. And aboriginal education shortfalls cost Canada $5.8-billion annually in lost productivity, according to a 2010 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report.
As the program plans to expand to include additional schools, more fundraising will be required to offset exorbitant connectivity costs and keep the program afloat.
"In the old days, if the train went by your town, you had an economy," Mr. Kawale says. "Today's train happens to be high-speed broadband networks and if we can get these communities lit up, get them connected, then we can start impacting health care, education, government services, employment."
Right now, people are advantaged by where the technological resources are, he says. "But we don't know where the smart kids are going to be born in Canada. If we want to fundamentally alter our country, we have to be able to enable all of them."