Last week I spent two days at a strategic retreat for Contact North managers in Sudbury, Ontario. I had the privilege last summer of flying across Northern Ontario (twice) in a small plane last summer (see: http://flight.tonybates.ca), so I have some understanding of the geography of the region.
I thought I would provide some information (I draw heavily on Contact North’s own publications) about this unique organization and the challenges and opportunities it is facing, especially for readers outside Canada who are engaged in providing educational opportunities for remote and scattered rural populations.
In Ontario, 85% of the population live on 10% of the land mass, mainly in the south of the province (around the Greater Toronto and Ottawa metropolitan areas).
Northern Ontario on the other hand covers a geographic area of more than 800,000 square kilometres, larger than the combined size of the United Kingdom and France with a small, dispersed population of only 786,000. It is largely uninhabitable, made up of swamp, small lakes, and boreal forest. Due to the impact of a huge meteorite many millions of years ago, there are rich mineral deposits (nickel, copper and gold, mainly) although they are often scattered and dispersed over a large area.
Many communities have less than 100 residents, and may be four hours driving time from the nearest town, over rough logging roads. Some are accessible only by float plane. There is a large number of small aboriginal communities living in this region. In 10 years time, aboriginals will constitute one third of the population in the region (and a much greater proportion outside the main cities). There are basically only two hard-top roads running roughly east west across the whole area (one is the Trans-Canada highway). Kenora in the west of Northern Ontario is roughly 1800 kilometres from Toronto – a three day drive.
The region has been severely impacted by the decline in demand for forestry products. While the main urban centres such as Sudbury, Thunder Bay and North Bay have survived the recent recession remarkably well, the smaller rural communities dependent on the forestry industry often have very high unemployment rates, with a large proportion of the recently unemployed being over 40 years old.
Contact North/Contact Nord
Founded in 1986, Contact North serves small and remote rural communities across the province of Ontario. It has 111 access centres that enable residents to pursue academic programs and courses offered by 16 provincial educational institutions. Staffed by local residents, each Access Centre uses space provided by the community at no cost and includes audioconferencing, videoconferencing and e-learning technologies for use by learners to access their courses offered by the educational institutions.
Contact North|Contact Nord is both a technology and a human network. While the technology enables the delivery of courses at a distance, local staff in the Access Centres provide personalized and individual support to learners in both official languages (English and French) by assisting them with exploration of program and course options, information on financial aid, the registration process at the educational institution, personal orientation on the use of the technology, exam invigilation services, and perhaps most importantly, encouragement and moral support as residents complete their programs and courses on a full or part-time basis.
Thus in some senses, Contact North provides recruitment and learner support services in the smaller, more remote communities that the provincial institutions could not otherwise serve. The organization targets a growing number of groups including Aboriginals, Francophones, disabled, and those requiring literacy and basic skills.
There are approximately 5,000 individuals served each year by Contact North. The number of course registrations facilitated in Fall 2009 grew by almost 35% to 9,321 from 6,941 in Fall 2008 while over the same period, the number of college, university, secondary school and literacy courses offered at a distance grew by 30% from 348 to 453. Contact North’s goal is to reach 20,000 individual course registrations by 2011.
Although for most of its life Contact North’s focus has been on Northern Ontario, the provincial government has now expanded the organization’s reach to other parts of rural Ontario through an initiative called elearnnetwork.ca. Residents of Eastern, Central and Southwestern Ontario now have access to more educational and training opportunities with elearnnetwork.ca. Funded by the Government of Ontario, elearnnetwork.ca works with 19 colleges, 15 universities and 17 local communities to make this happen.
Over the years, Contact NorthIContact Nord has managed to adapt successfully to the major developments in technology. It was originally mainly a dedicated audio-conferencing network serving the Northern Ontario post-secondary educational institutions. Later it moved into video-conferencing (which is still used), and more recently Centra, a synchronous presentational software system that combines audio, slide and a chat facility. Its main asset though has been constant: the human and local support provided through its access centres.
Contact North’s annual operating budget is approximately $9 million.
The workshop for Contact North’s senior managers was held over two days on January 20-21, 2010. There were four presenters:
Robert Martellacci, President of Mindshare Learning, spoke about developments in e-learning in the k-12 sector. The Mindshare Learning Report contains video and audio podcast interviews with thought leaders and politicians about the use of technology in schools.
Brian Stewart, the CIO of Athabasca University, discussed developments in open source and open content. Athabasca has adopted Moodle as its main learning management system.
I talked about strategic directions for e-learning in Canada, focused mainly on the post-secondary education sector.
Liveo Di Mateo, of the Department of Economics, Lakehead University, talked about the economic future of Northern Ontario.
Over the two days there was an exceptionally rich discussion of strategy and directions for e-learning and distance education in Northern Ontario. It will have given much food for thought for Maxim Jean-Louis, the President, and all his staff.
Contact North claims to be the world’s largest distance education network, connecting 111 centres across a vast area.
I would be very interested (as would Contact North) in hearing from other distance education networks providing local access and support to distance education programs from other organizations.