The ambitious vision of connecting every indigenous school in Canada to an HD video telepresence network seems to be bearing fruit.

Connected North is this year’s public sector small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME) winner of ITWC’s Digital Transformation Awards, which recognizes companies of various sizes for their digital transformation efforts.

The Connected North program was founded three years ago by Cisco Systems Inc. to realize this vision, and is currently managed by the charity, TakingITGlobal (TIG). As of the 2017 Digital Transformation Awards, Connected North is involved with 30 schools across Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Northern Ontario.

“We are really appreciative of the recognition and of the power of this moment,” Michael Furdyk, co-founder and director of technology at TIG, tells IT World Canada about receiving this award. “Especially, as we reflect on Canada’s 150 year anniversary and on the importance of education and in particular, this idea of reconciliation with our indigenous peers across the country.”

Its mission to provide 21st-century digital learning to under-served communities and ensure there’s enough support that the connected video networks become viable as a long-term approach to student engagement and learning has had real effect in indigenous communities all across Canada. In an age where keeping students engaged is of high importance, Connected North has found success where others have failed.

“Everyone [within the Canadian education system] is struggling to keep students engaged,” said Furdyk. “And you can imagine the challenges being faced in more remote communities when they have access to only a fraction of the community support, relationships, technology, and experiences that are available.”

And by all means, this idea to focus on providing a high quality video learning experience is working. A York University study in 2013-2014 stated that about nine in 10 students said that with Connected North’s remote learning experience they “learned more in the virtual sessions” than they would in a regular classroom.

A University of Toronto study from 2014-2015 corroborated that Connected North is working, reporting that 86 per cent of students were actively participating during a Connected North virtual session, and that the highest levels of engagement occured when there was a cultural sharing opportunity.

“Digital transformation is at the heart of what is necessary for our education systems to keep up with how students are living and how they are expecting to be engaged,” said Furdyk. “I think that it is also the key to the development of our future economy, because we want students to have economic opportunities and fulfilling, sustainable livelihoods and jobs.”

To accomplish this enormous task, TIG has collaborated with important partnerships of managed server providers, corporate sponsors, academic institutions, and government. Cisco handed over the reins to TIG, but remains an active partner by helping to create these partnerships.

Connected North is working with service providers to boost the bandwidth available to schools across Canada’s rural northern regions, and has also been actively collaborating with indigenous local councils, boards, and governments as communities adopt the program.

“It’s such a complicated kind of program to execute on, and it is only possible because of collaboration across all these sectors, and of course partnerships within the community. The ecosystem and the co-design philosophy of this program make it possible, successful, and compelling,” said Furdyk.

And this is just the beginning for TIG and Connected North. The organization’s plan is to eventually migrate ownership and accountability for the program to local communities. The charity is mindful of how it can share its success with communities all across the country.

“We are looking at not just our own growth, but to share our models and what is working with individuals and communities so that we can create positive change and create a solution that helps them be independent,” Furdyk explained.

“Canada has over 600 First Nation communities, and many others who need change and support. We want to be thoughtful about how we grow, but especially how we share what we are learning, and share the model for how the program was built so that others can learn from and build on it themselves.”

Check out ITWC’s Digital Transformation Award winner video for Connected North below.

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