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Education challenges up North are not unique

The Inuit lands, a huge expanse of tundra sparsely populated. Image credit: ITK

I was part in the last two days of the IEEE presence at ArticNet, the major annual event looking at different facets of life and environment in artic regions (of Canada, although the issues are common to all artic regions).

The artic region of Canada is a vast spread of land (and ice, quite a lot of it actually) sparsely inhabited by Inuit, a nomadic population that in the last 75 years have settled into small communities (300-500 people) far apart one from the other for a total of 65,000 people. The settlements have grown around some very basic infrastructures, a school, a basic health care facility, a radio antenna to receive microwave or satellite signals, a grocery store.

In the area there are a few research centres mostly looking at environment aspects. There is so much ice up there that the warming of the planet and the melting of polar cap may not be an issue but researchers are measuring climatic change in the area that might have very high impact elsewhere. The Northern passage has become navigable in the last few years (not in 2018 that I was told was pretty cold up there through the Summer) and this is a sign of the global warming.

Everything is very expensive up there. It would be cheaper flying from Ottawa to New Zealand than flying to one Inuit settlement. Clearly the reason is “scale”. Very little economy of scale for everything, including education. And this is where my interest was in joining the event.

IEEE is a leading force in technical education all around the world and its goal “fostering education to the benefit of humanity” has clearly to address remote areas, be it in the African savanna or in the ice covered tundra of the Inuit. The problem is similar: how can we use technology to promote education?

The Artic Fibre optic network being planned to serve Inuit territory. Image credit: Nuvitik Communications

Remote courses are fine, as long as you have connectivity to deliver them. Up north connectivity is scarce. Internet can be accessed via Satellite connection, and that is both expensive and slow. There is an optical fibre connecting Churchill (Manitoba) to the big Internet and there is a plan to extend connectivity to Inuit territory using a submarine cable.

On the other hand we have today huge storage capacity at very low cost. Loading some 1,000 courses, including multimedia and video lessons would be just 100$ away. These courses can be used on laptop and on smartphones (here again connectivity is scarce, although first 4G networks are now being deployed.

There are two basic issues:

  • how can we create affordable courses(price-wise) if the market is small?
  • what can people do with advanced education if no demand for that is there?

Actually, these issues are not just specific to remote, sparsely populated areas, they are becoming relevant world-wide. The fact is that knowledge is expanding so rapidly that it is already beyond the capability of being absorbed by individuals. There is a need to detect knowledge gaps that are specific to a single person (the gap is bounded on one side on what that person knows and on the other on what that person need to know at that particular time/in that specific activity). This basically pushes towards a market of one, very similar to the one we have in remote areas.

This requires creating courses in form of customisable pills, easy to aggregate to meet specific needs and to be delivered in the most effective way. This is a must for continuous education where people have very little time to dedicate to learning and a variety of situations where different learning approaches would better fit.

Artificial Intelligence working on the Digital Twin of that person, mirroring her knowledge, connecting to contextual digital twins to evaluate her needs (short and medium term needs) and to shape delivery (assessing what is available in her environment) would become a major player in future education.

I am pretty  sure that the first issue, delivering education to a market of one can be addressed successfully by an optimal mix of technologies.

What about the second issue?

If you are educating a person to become an engineer, and then to be a better engineer, that person would expect to leverage on the gained knowledge. We are facing this issue today in several Countries and it is usually called: “The Brain Drain”. You invest in education of people and once they have got a top notch education they emigrate, going to work where their knowledge can be turned into money.

This would be even more so in areas like the Canada Northern Territories where jobs opportunities are low (particularly for well educated engineers). This is actually an issue that did not have any solution in the past but that today is starting to be addressable.

The Digital Transformation is basically shifting a major portion of the life cycle of a product to the cyberspace where location is not an issue. Everything is adjacent to everything else in the cyberspace. You can design, reshape supply chains, monitor far away production plants, interact with users and leverage on dat analytics on a top a skyscraper in Manhattan as well as in a hut in the nordic tundra -provided you have good connectivity, that is providing that you are in the cyberspace.

The Digital Transformation can become a tremendous enabler in remote areas as well as in densely populated areas where people may want to stay home or may need to reach resources at the other side of the world.

Courses need to be shaped with the Digital Transformation in mind. They need to provide both the knowledge and the possibility to leverage on that knowledge. This is why at EIT Digital courses are being developed in synch with industry so that industry can steer the education in a direction where it can immediately benefit from it.

I can foresee a shift in education where professional educators are becoming tools used by those who need knowledge in an executable forms, i.e. industry.

The course, under joint development by EIT Digital and IEEE, on Digital Transformation is approaching this paradigm.

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