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Connected North: Distance Learning, Virtual Field Trips, and a World of Opportunity

This week, join us as we travel to the far north of Canada, where distance learning is nothing new to the schools of Connected North and virtual field trips transport students to distant places and spaces.

by / June 24, 2020
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Until recently, many of us had never experienced the feeling of being physically disconnected from the rest of the world. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought this home for the many people separated from friends, family, colleagues, and society.

Now, imagine this was always your reality. For those living in the remote Northern communities in Canada, great physical distances separate them from neighbouring communities and even further from the rest of the country. In 2016, 66% of Canadians lived with 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the US border, an area which represents about 4% of Canada’s total land mass.

Step 1: Discovering social issues

Way back in 2012, we at Cisco Canada knew we wanted to leverage the things we do best at Cisco – our amazing technology, our incredible people, our knowledge of the industry, our ecosystem – to unleash impactful change. For a year, we strategized and researched social issues that could be addressed through Cisco’s technology, including the challenges faced by remote Northern communities. But our approach needed to be thoughtful. We needed to understand the needs, values, and priorities across different communities. We needed to build real partnerships, founded on respect and trust. So, I spent a year meeting people, travelling to the North, learning first-hand about the issues. Listening.

During that year, I met Mary Simon, then leader of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the association of the Inuit Peoples of Canada. Mary spoke passionately about two critical issues facing her community – the high dropout rate of students in high school and the tragically high rate of suicide – the highest per capita globally, issues exacerbated by the lack of adequate resources and the expense of bringing these resources into the community on a regular basis. This, we could change.

Step 2: Building the connection


“We should try anything that will make the classroom more engaging. Anything that makes the classroom more fun, and that encourages kids to come to school, is worth trying. Let’s do it." Mary Simon, Former Leader of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami


In Mary’s first video conference experience, she saw both the quality of the video interaction and the proposal to deliver a range of services and experiences to communities across Nunavut.

A few months later, the first Connected North session was up and running in Iqualit, Nunavut. From that single school in 2013, the Connected North network has expanded to 65 schools and over 15,000 students from the Yukon to Nunavut. The program connects classrooms to mentors, mental health and wellness sessions, sports events and experiences, museums, literacy and math support, Native language instruction, teacher training and more. The Connected North philosophy? Highlight the unique relationship with each community we serve – their past, culture, and rich heritage – and infuse and customize each session with a foundation that honours their ways of knowing and learning.

As more and more schools and content providers became interested in the program, it was clear that Cisco Canada, alone, could no longer give this program the singular focus and support it deserved. Today, Connected North is led and managed by charity partner TakingITGlobal and supported by an ecosystem of partners.

Behind the scenes, Cisco employees tirelessly volunteer to bring new schools into the Connected North program. In the early days, communities were chronically underserved in terms of the basic connectivity that enables a good Webex experience and meaningful person-to-person connections. Bringing a Connected North school online often meant upgrading the network connectivity for the whole community. In recent years, significant government investment in community infrastructure has simplified the set-up process – meaning most can access the program as soon as the endpoints arrive.

Step 3: Launching the virtual field trip

When COVID-19 hit and schools shut, most Canadian school districts were left without a way to engage with students in real time. Most did not have distance learning platforms, let alone video conferencing.

Remote communities on the Connected North network have always known the value of digital learning. When schools closed, the TakingITGlobal team quickly pivoted programming to deliver Connected North sessions to students at home, launching Connected North@Home in late March. This new program offers dozens of opportunities for students to connect to museums, zoos, Indigenous role models and other educational organisations to continue to have a unique learning experience – from home.

The recorded Connected North@Home sessions are available to teachers and students around the world – a free, virtual field trip to a museum, zoo, art lesson or storytelling session is just a click away. Students can learn about coral reefs and sharks from the Vancouver Aquarium, discover chemical reactions with the Michigan Science Center, or explore the Aurora Borealis through art with the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Nowhere is the power of distance learning and video to bring people together, inspire, build connection, and open a world of opportunity more clearly shown than through Connected North. And now, everyone can have a taste through Connected North@Home.

Where will Webex take you today?

Join us next week as we continue our #EducationNow miniseries on the Transition to Hybrid Learning.

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