Access to the internet and the availability of computer equipment are barriers to college students in remote areas of the NWT. Michele Taylor/Cabin Radio
Donations of computers for NWT students have dried up, as have flights to ship them. Even if a student gets a computer, there’s no guarantee they can afford internet access.
That’s a concern when the territory’s largest post-secondary institution, Aurora College, is trying to move as much programming as it can online.
The college says it is working through problems on a student-by-student basis as courses return to life through distance learning after a brief hiatus brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aurora College’s three largest campuses have moved most programming to “online systems, phone calls, emails, and distribution of printed material,” said Lynn Morris Jamieson, vice-president of student affairs.
“Every effort has been made to keep students aware of the changes and how they may be impacted,” she said.
The availability of computers is a problem for some, she said. College staff are working to get all students connected.
“The primary point of contact for students has been their instructor and accommodations are being made on a case-by-case basis to support each student through the challenging shift to a new way of learning,” said Morris Jamieson.
Chris Hunt is the executive director of the Smart Communities Society, which helps NWT communities get online and runs a Computers for Schools program.
Hunt said his society is working with the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment to get as many computers as possible into students’ hands.
However, stocks are lower than usual as the pandemic shuts down supply lines.
“We’re very limited in what we have right now in our usual pipeline of donated computers,” said Hunt, “which – from all levels of government, of course – has dried up like everything else.
“We spoke with Aurora College and teachers at the other levels of schooling and said, ‘You tell us where your priorities are and we’ll get as many out as quickly as we can.’”
‘It’s not a matter of cost’
Getting the computers is step one. Sending those computers out to students is step two, and Morris Jamieson said that brings difficulties too.
“This process takes time. Every effort is being made to get computers to students in their home communities across the NWT as quickly as possible,” she said.
“[It’s] not a matter of cost, rather it is facing the same operational challenges many organizations are facing, including staff now working from home and reduced flights.”
Even the job of prepping donated machines is being disrupted by physical distancing measures.
At his society’s Computers for Schools workspace, Hunt said there’s only so much room.
“We take donated government computers from the [territorial] and the federal government, and then we refurbish them, wipe the hard drives, clean them, get them ready, and load them with software,” he said.
“And of course, we’re limited. We can only have one person in our workshop space at a time right now.”
Internet access adds to student pressures
Two years ago, the Government of Canada invested more than $4.6 million in new or improved internet connections for Colville Lake, Gamètì, Łutselk’e, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Sambaa K’e, Ulukhaktok, and Wekweètì.
Connectivity costs in the NWT, however, remain some of the most expensive in the country. The NWT Bureau of Statistics said in 2014 nearly half of the households in many communities lacked internet access.
That means even once a student gets a computer, there’s one more barrier to their learning – the cost of getting online.
Hunt said students are often already living on a limited income with little to spare. He sees a widening digital divide and thinks the number of those struggling to connect is likely higher than reported.
“Even those numbers are a bit funny, because sometimes they just say if they have access to [internet], you know, physically,” he said. “Then [students might] have access to the internet, but that also doesn’t reflect the financial reality where there’s no disposable income because they don’t have the economies required to support that.”
Cabin Radio asked the NWT’s Student Financial Assistance program if any funding assistance will be provided for students to pay for internet access. Program managers had not responded at the time of publication.