The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project a positive step forward for Lakehead University and Thunder Bay

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Lakehead UniversityTHUNDER BAY – Online education is going to change the world. The number of students around the world taking online education is over 120,000 right now. Working together in small groups from around the world, connected by technology, this is happening right now. It is being discussed in Thunder Bay by Lakehead University as a tool toward making a huge impact across the North. A new program started at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may be a good marker of the importance of how the increased use of technology can help make a positive change for the future.

The use of technology as a tool to do the heavy lifting and build capacity across the north is something being discussed in Thunder Bay and looked at for expanding the opportunities for students from across the north in Ontario. Dr. Brian Stevenson, the Lakehead University President has for some time now, shared information on the Gichi Kendaasiwin Project. “Lakehead University is working on a living blueprint. Lakehead has set four directions for success – based on the Medicine Wheel. The building that we have talked about would include education facilities, a daycare facility and all the needed facilities,” shared President Stevenson speaking at Lakehead University on March 20th.

So what is the Gichi Kendaasiwin Project?

The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project is a multi-pronged strategy that addresses the need to collaborate and increase post-secondary education attainment levels. It supports expanded post-secondary education support for at-risk communities across the north.

For the growing Aboriginal population in Ontario Lakehead University will continue to be the ‘University of First Choice’ for Aboriginal students by providing community-centered, shared learning programs and services. The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project is a $45M effort that would ensure increase success of Aboriginal learners by improving access and participation, completion, transitions/ partnerships.

The Centre will include an Aboriginal Research Institute, an Aboriginal Language Institute, computer and lab facilities, space to host special events, an Aboriginal art/museum gallery area, secure exterior space for a medicine garden, a day care centre, The Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, Aboriginal Cultural and Support Services offices with common areas, Aboriginal-focused programs and an Elders Room, and there will be offices for Aboriginal faculty and graduate students.

The Gichi Kendaasiwin Project will ultimately advance and revitalize knowledge and culture of Indigenous peoples in Ontario for future generations through research, technology and cultural activities. The Discovery Fund is closely tied into the Gichi Kendaasiwin Project. This is an effort that will see Lakehead University build a $10 million endowment that will help ensure that everyone, regardless of background and socio-economic status, has access and opportunity to gain higher education through Lakehead University.

photo by Lakehead University Communications

In particular, the Discovery Fund opens a world of possibilities to youth from rural and Aboriginal community, youth-at-risk young people, first generation Canadians without a family history of post-secondary education, and refugee populations. The Discovery Fund provides a comprehensive approach for student groups under-represented at the university level, including “a tap on the shoulder” for students who show academic promise, in the form of tuition fund credits earned as early as Grade 4, with up to $4,000 in total tuition support at Lakehead University.

The Achievement Program bursaries for tuition fees as well as for emergency childcare, food, and shelter. This will also help in the development of healthier communities through community capacity building.

The project seeks to offer enhanced learning through innovative learning and tutorial centres a focusing on core academics like math, science, the environment, and traditional Indigenous knowledge. There will be a transition-year program for entry-level students, providing the support they need to succeed.

The Gichi Kendaasiwin Centre seeks to include what will be called The Northwestern Ontario Telepresence Network. This is the third integral component that will ensure the success of the Gichi Kendaasiwin Project. Telepresence is an immersive meeting experience that offers ultimate video and audio clarity. It is set apart from video conferencing by several factors that create a competitive advantage. Participants are life-size. Every sound, gesture, and facial expression supports natural communication will be part of the interactive process. Joining multiple telepresence calls creates a single, exclusive meeting space.

Intuitive functionality like touch screen interfaces allows participants to bring in other sites and presentations with ease.

Lakehead University has built a coalition of partners that includes Confederation College and the Thunder Bay Regional Hospital interested in building the Northwest Ontario Telepresence Network to deliver education and wellness programs to rural Northwest Ontario communities that otherwise would face accessibility obstacles by virtue of geography to access many of the college, university and health wellness programs that other Ontario communities take for granted.

At an estimated cost of $5M, this capacity building technology also has economic development potential, assisting remote businesses connect with global markets around the world.

Currently 11% of the University population is Aboriginal. Stevenson says that “Only 16% of the total population go to university, but a smaller number of Aboriginal students. We have to grow the population of Aboriginal students”. The second factor is that there is a great flow of growth of young people coming through the system – Lloyd Axeworthy, Stevenson said called that ‘a potentially lost generation of youth’. By the 12th grade, Stevenson say many of the students have dropped out and are already ‘lost’ to higher education. Stevenson said that Thunder Bay and Lakehead University is already behind many other universities as we do not have “A gathering place for higher learning and sharing of wisdom. I would like this to be a meeting place on campus, so we can begin to over come the problems of racism”.

Speaking out past the physical boundaries of Lakehead University to the wider audience around the region and the country, “We are going to help you become part of the Lakehead University family,” President Stevenson says.

The kind of technology that Lakehead University is examining is a part of what is currently happening at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as these two incidents have announced edX, a transformational new partnership in online education.

Through edX, the two institutions will collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners. EdX will build on both universities’ experience in offering online instructional content. The technological platform recently established by MITx, which will serve as the foundation for the new learning system, was designed to offer online versions of MIT courses featuring video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories, and student paced learning. Certificates of mastery will be available for those motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material.

MIT and Harvard expect that over time other universities will join them in offering courses on the edX platform. The gathering of many universities’ educational content together on one site will enable learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university from a single website, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities.

EdX will release its learning platform as open source software so it can be used by other universities and organizations who wish to host the platform themselves. Because the learning technology will be available as open-source software, other universities and individuals will be able to help edX improve and add features to the technology.

MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful. The findings of this research will be used to inform how faculty use technology in their teaching, which will enhance the experience for students on campus and for the millions expected to take advantage of these new online offerings.

“EdX represents a unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new educational path for millions of learners worldwide,” MIT President Susan Hockfield said.

Harvard President Drew Faust said, “edX gives Harvard and MIT an unprecedented opportunity to dramatically extend our collective reach by conducting groundbreaking research into effective education and by extending online access to quality higher education.”

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There is an ongoing change happening in educational institutes across the globe. Realizing perhaps that rather than an isolated region of the world, like some in our community avow, through new visionary thinking, and through embracing the future our region will prosper greatly and will be a better and more engaged community and region.

Lakehead University is doing, as universities must do moving things forward. It is a goal that regional and federal politicians should be embracing and supporting.

James Murray

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