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“Together at a Distance”

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The author develops some new online modules for GN staff with Shasta, his faithful feline assistant. © Anna Joy Burgess

Lessons from living online, the environment, and COVID-19

My formative years were spent growing up in Angola with very busy medical missionary parents. Non-traditional schooling and work were my normal, and a typical day consisted of completing a few correspondence modules, then sneaking outside early to play and explore.My favourite subject was Social Studies, especially lessons on the Indigenous peoples of Canada. It’s no surprise then, that years after moving and establishing a comfortable career teaching high school in St. John’s, Newfoundland,one tiny advertisement in the local paper for a science teacher position in the Kitikmeot was the catalyst that took me to what was then Coppermine, now Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

Fast forward and I was fortunate to work for the Government of Nunavut with a number of incredible people. Several exciting projects eventually led to formation of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation, which in turn led to the Qiniq network, the first provider of internet access to all 25 Nunavut communities. With a network in place, we leveraged federal government funding to launch a three-year pan-Arctic collaborative project from 2007 to 2010 called, “Together at a Distance” (T@D).

T@D combined global best practices for online learning with expertise from adult educators, subject matter experts, and Elders. Although the T@D project is no longer running, it continues to provide the theoretical and practical base from which to adapt for new technologies and requirements in the North.

My interest in communication technologies, a background in science, and Elder’s observa- tions on environmental change propelled me further into online learning. I moved from the government to working with a company now called NVision Insight Group.

One of the challenges presented to us was the need to provide professional development without facing the traditional costs of sending participants to a central location. In-person courses required flights, hotels, meals, travel, time away from family, and disruption during storm days. How could we provide a cost- effective, quality learning experience, while also reducing pollutants and greenhouse gases being emitted into this delicate environment? Using T@D as the core model, courses were adapted for an online learning management system. Bi-weekly live sessions using the telephonefor audio and an application for screensharing allowed for teaching of courses using minimal bandwidth. In time, with significant improve- ments in bandwidth and increased participant digital literacy, this model led to dozens of courses being delivered online across Nunavut. Recently, COVID-19 hasradically changed how we work, conduct commerce, travel, communicate, consider our environment, and just live. Educators who are used to working in closer proximity must now create rich online learning experiences. There is a sudden interest in what we refer to as disruptive technologies that are used to help us become more efficient andcommunicate better with one another. Many northern communities have been adopting and adapting disruptive technologies for years. There is a lot the North can teach the rest of the world and in this time of reflection, mean- ingful online connection will likely become an integral part of our new normal in life.