How online learning is an opportunity for the Arctic

Greenland stands to benefit from a shift to online education — and to lead the way for the rest of the region.

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A woman and child hold hands as they walk on the street in the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 15, 2018. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters File Photo)

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, schools and teachers across the globe have been forced to move learning online. This transition — and the innovation in the space that will likely follow — presents an opportunity for areas that faced challenges to in-person learning long before the pandemic.

In Greenland, for example, 40 percent of the population lives outside of the five major towns, and the remote nature of many villages makes education beyond primary school inaccessible for some students. To continue education beyond the age of 16, many students must leave their villages to attend one of the country’s four boarding schools, which are located in the more populated areas.

When faced with the challenges and tradeoffs of relocation, many students choose not to attend upper secondary school, or start and then drop out. About 54 percent of Greenland’s population does not progress beyond lower secondary school, and nearly 60 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have not yet completed high school or vocational education. When students do choose to leave home to continue their education they often do not return, threatening the sustainability of culture and communities.

Online education is a promising solution to Greenland’s lagging high school completion rates. And Greenland is uniquely positioned to pilot online learning: the 4G infrastructure in Greenland reaches all populated places, and a new underwater cable will extend high-speed internet coverage to 92 percent of the population in coming years. While not every student could participate in online learning — yet — expanding an online model could make high school possible for many more students. As infrastructure continues to improve, access will also increase.

While other areas of the Arctic lag Greenland in internet access — only 40.1 percent of rural areas in Canada currently have access to broadband, for example — Greenland’s pilot could serve as a model for other Arctic communities in the future. As access spreads, an online platform could also connect learners across the Arctic, many of whom are Inuit, to help to maintain cultural learning, practices, and traditions.

Online education will increase flexibility for students to balance continuing their education with family, cultural, and community commitments. A more accessible pathway to a high school degree will lead to economic development, cultural continuation, and empowerment. Greenland’s economy, its communities and its residents stand to benefit dramatically from a better educated populace.

Greenland has already piloted online learning in some of its elementary school classrooms. In 2018, the government partnered with four large foundations in Denmark to develop and fund a five-year initiative to deliver virtual, high-quality education to elementary school students in Greenland. The program provides teachers and students with iPads, internet access, and online instruction. Early anecdotal results from the pilot have been positive, with teachers reporting improvement in student learning, particularly around English language acquisition.

Developing an online education program at the secondary level will pose different challenges. Implementation will require additional teacher training, the distribution of devices for at-home learning, and contracts with learning management and video communications providers. Domestic learning environments must be considered. Deciding what to teach and how to teach it, will require input from educators, students, government officials, and Indigenous representatives. But the recent uptick in online learning due to COVID-19 has led to quick innovation and the development of best practices that can be drawn upon in program design and delivery.

Increasing education rates will contribute to the sustainability of Greenland’s economy and culture. Greenland currently seeks foreign talent to fill job openings in vital professions like medicine and teaching. Improving education would empower native Greenlanders to fill these roles, as well as provide a workforce to help expand new industries, like data centers and renewable energy. As climate change threatens to irrevocably alter the region, education will play a central role in helping to prepare students for the future while reinforcing the Arctic people’s long tradition of resilience.

The pandemic has proven that quality online education is possible, and some are prophesying an online future, even in urban, developed areas. The Arctic stands to gain from expanding education opportunities online, and Greenland is poised to lead the Arctic in this space. In 2016, then-Minister of Education Nivi Olsen stated that Greenland’s most important resource is its people. Investing in education is an investment in this resource, and in the region’s future.

Abby Conyers is a master’s in public policy candidate and education entrepreneur fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by the student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.