Alaskan Native Communities Are Using Video Conferencing to Transform Education and Healthcare

native community video conference

The Yukon-Koyukuk School District in Alaska is so remote that seven of its nine communities can only be reached by a small aircraft. The two that can be reached by road are best accessed by snowmobiles and dog sleds for most of the year.

The district sits within a vast splendor of rivers, mountains, and forest that covers an area greater than the state of Washington. It is home to just 6,000 residents.

While American students pack in together in overcrowded classrooms, the students of the district can benefit from the same curriculum. That’s because last year their education system received nearly $500,000 in video conferencing equipment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This technology makes it possible for native communities to remain in their homelands without sacrificing their quality of life.

Bridging a Digital Divide

$500,000 is a lot of video conferencing power.

Provided there are several thousand dollars left over after the internet networking foundation is improved and laid down, each of the Yukon-Koyukuk’s nine village schools could install a range of cameras and a screen that would reproduce HD images and crystal clear audio.

Even a high-end, professional quality camera designed to capture public events retails for less than $1,000 these days. And that’s enough power to transmit the school’s spring musical across the country.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to use this technology in the classroom.

The Yukon-Koyukuk students could take a virtual field trip to any place on the planet, from the Louvre in Paris to the Hershey’s chocolate factory; from a virtual climb up Mount Everest, to a tour of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Or, they could begin having face-to-face shared lessons with their peers in schools all over the world. George Mason High, near Washington D.C.. currently uses video conferencing to speak with students in 35 countries.

Or, they could receive tutelage from remote teachers who offer diverse expertise that a small community just doesn’t contain.

It’s a way of opening the world up to students.

Fresh Funding for Video Breakthroughs

The Yukon-Koyukuk students aren’t the only native community in Alaska to receive such a transformative grant.

In July the USDA announced another round of funding for video conference education and telemedicine, including $2.2 million for native communities in Alaska, California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. This time, four Alaskan communities received a pool of $1.4 million.

One such group, the Tanana Chiefs Conference, will receive $375,000 to implement and upgrade telemedicine services to remote communities. The money will help doctors perform regular virtual clinical visits to central areas of the state that are accessible only by aircraft.

HD-quality video conferencing makes it possible for physicians to perform routine check-ups and consult on simple health concerns without leaving their clinics. The Georgia Partnership for Telehealth has already replaced traditional doctors’ visits with the online variety in 350 remote locations.

Such networks need only a central video conferencing point, with perhaps three or four video calling terminals, in order to interact with doctors across the U.S. There’s no need for individual patients to install their own devices at home, although adding a webcam to a laptop on a remote farm or installing at least one camera within a short drive of every community would speed up care delivery.

The spreading popularity of video conferencing in remote native communities opens up even more possibilities.

Invisible Video Infrastructure

Remote video conferencing could bring professionals into small communities which cannot commercially support a brick and mortar presence.

Financial planners, for instance, can already be contacted via video calling, and their services can be called upon to help with financial matters of a personal, civic, or regional nature. Likewise, industry-specific engineers could be consulted remotely, and even taken on first-hand tours of potential construction projects or tricky maintenance issues with the use of smartphone video conferencing platforms.

Or, artists could form connections with kindred creative types all over the world by posting their works and ideas online, and then inviting others to join them in collaborative, face-to-face projects and events.

In these ways, video conferencing constructs invisible infrastructure that supports, but doesn’t degrade, the fabric of native communities.

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