How our new virtual world can empower the Arctic

COVID-19 forced educators to innovate online in real time. The Arctic can benefit from the lessons we learned — even after this crisis is over.

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The campus of Ilisimatusarfik/The University of Greenland is seen in an October 2019 file photo. Innovations in higher education because of the COVID-19 pandemic could benefit the Arctic, in education and beyond. (Krestia DeGeorge)

Sighing deeply over coffee, my friend lamented that 2020 has so far been the “year of cancelation ‘on all levels’” — from small birthday parties to global conferences. And while fully understanding the health aspects of each and every cancelation, she also wondered, when would we go back to normal? I had started nodding my head in agreement when I thought, is “back to normal” the best we can do?

The online interaction we have experienced due to in-person cancellations, empowered by software such as Zoom, have helped deliver the largest “living online exercise” ever undertaken. As in most sectors, participation in online higher education went through the roof. Here at Harvard Kennedy School, and in places around the world, the pandemic forced universities to develop online versions of their courses and recreate the classroom experience for thousands of students with just a few weeks’ notice. An online education experiment which had been under development for years — at the speed of a medium-size turtle — became the new norm in an instant because of the COVID-19 disruption.

The online results for higher education are still coming in but perhaps are not all too bad. This shift should indeed require us to think creatively: Do we want to go back to normal completely, or are there some aspects of learning that are improved by the new reality? Online university education is cheaper than having students and faculty travel across oceans to meet. It is more environmentally friendly than traveling for academic conferences or programs, and it decreases barriers to participation. You can jump on an online class from almost anywhere, without having to sort things such as transport, clothing changes between meetings, babysitting, or booking meeting rooms. You can simply join, provided you have a computer and reliable internet access.

The opportunities from this new reality are particularly important for areas where the cost of participating in educational experiences traditionally has been a barrier for growth. That describes the reality of the Arctic region, where the cost and difficulty of traveling from one town to another is often so high that it can hinder collaboration, limit access to quality education, and reduce network building. For example, Greenland’s towns are not linked by roads, and many students in Greenland must relocate to a new town if they wish to continue their education — and those wishing to pursue a university degree beyond the offerings available from Ilisimatusarfik, The University of Greenland, have to move abroad to places in Denmark or beyond.

Eventually, that can contribute to “brain drain,” or high levels of emigration by those with higher educational completion, leading to a decline in workforce and economic activity. Greenland is not alone among Arctic nations in facing such challenges. And as if it wasn’t enough to have all those educational barriers affecting a region, the Arctic also faces another alarming situation: climate change is warming the region at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet, creating multiple local and global challenges whose solutions require education and innovation.

While there are certainly some Arctic communities that do not yet have access to the required technology for online learning, for many it will be more feasible to obtain access to these tools — even shared or temporary access — than it would be to buy a plane ticket and relocate to a new town or country to pursue higher education.

Contributing to solutions for Arctic challenges has always been the mission of Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative — including education. Each year we host a class of Arctic Innovators. Our traditional teaching method had, like most of academia, required in-person classrooms, and even onsite meetings with Arctic field learning. This year’s projects were planned to take place in Nuuk, Greenland.

The COVID-19 reality, however, required us to test a new format — something we undertook gladly and optimistically. Instead of cancellation, we designed virtual travels and co-hosted innovation workshops hand in hand with our Greenlandic collaborators in academia and government. The outcome was a learning experience which formed new networks and know-how that will live with our students and programs forever. As Gitte Adler Reimar, the University of Greenland’s rector and a participant in the workshop put it, “this is the way we should be doing things in the future.”

It would be simplistic to say that this online reality completely replaced the experience our students had gained through previous in-person field study. Perhaps a winning formula will be a hybrid model that combines the best from both worlds. Bonding online is not the same: Creating personal dynamics in meetings is harder, household distractions pop up unexpectedly, and the traditional educational format of long lectures gets (even more) tiring. The online environment should thus be considered a different planet in another solar system, one that needs completely new teaching methods for survival and should be approached with that in mind. We should not seek to replicate the old classroom or field trip experience, but rather redesign and reimagine the educational experience to fit a new online reality. Our Greenland workshop this spring served as a testing ground for this reimagined collaboration.

In the weeks to come, ArcticToday will share op-eds on policy and social innovation, developed from this work by the Arctic Innovators in this year’s Harvard Kennedy School Arctic class. These ideas range from exploring new 3D-printed housing for relocating communities to building a green infrastructure for shipping. These students never met in person, but connected online from across the globe, both within the class as well as with course mentors, myself, and their peers in the Arctic. All of their projects were developed over a few weeks and most had little knowledge about the Arctic when beginning. And all of the students were themselves adapting to the virtual format, a first for many and a shock for all. No doubt students who applied for this course imagined they would be sitting in a classroom, meeting each other over library tables and traversing glaciers in Greenland with new friends there. We were pleased that the online experiment demonstrated students’ creativity as well as their adaptability under unexpectedly challenging circumstances.

These students’ work shows that interesting ideas can be born from a collaboration that only comes from hanging out “in the cloud.” Most importantly, it demonstrates that the Arctic region has a big opportunity in overcoming its natural barriers related to the cost and time of delivering in-person higher education. Instead, it can build virtual educational bridges that improve opportunities for its own people and while also attracting global talent. Through those virtual bridges, COVID-19’s online experiment can be transformed into a unique educational fuel — a new norm which puts access to learning first, regardless of distance, convenience, or cost.

Halla Hrund Logadóttir, co-founder of the Harvard Kennedy School Arctic Initiative and head of the Arctic Innovators Program, is a former director of the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavík University

This introduction marks the beginning of a series of op-eds written by student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. In coming weeks 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.