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Global Storm seeks notebook computers for remote communities learning plan


The move to remote and online learning after the shuttering of schools across the NWT poses challenges to students in homes and communities that lack access to computers. 

IT support company Global Storm is aiming to fill that need with its new donor program to provide notebook computers in homes across the NWT.

"In the Tlicho and Dehcho regions alone there is an urgent need for 200 notebooks," said Global Storm CEO Kirby Marshall in an interview on Tuesday.

Marshall learned about the specifics of the need based on research in those regions where the Yellowknife-based company provides IT and communications services.

Global Storm is seeking new and used notebook computers to distribute to remote communities to help them connect to the internet and online education. Pixabay image
"In the Dehcho, our client did a phone survey. They called every home in the seven Dehcho communities and asked about technological availability. They did that in the past few weeks. We have accurate, recent information on this," he said.
Marshall realized the implications of connectivity problems in the communities as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic began.
"In February, I was acutely aware that the pandemic would significantly and negatively impact students and communities, who are already the most at-risk in our education system. I knew right away that we would be going to remote education. Yellowknife is fairly well connected and funded, but many communities are missing the pieces.
"I went to educators in my client base and talked to them and started the discussions but I (realized) I can't buy notebook computers because the supply chains are disrupted. The portable devices are being snapped up by  hundreds of millions of people working from home and students at home around the world. I'm able to get only two or three or four computers a week if I'm lucky."
Marshall said he asked several large companies and organizations for help but had little luck because the supplies of computers had dried up. That's when he turned to the idea of a notebook donor program.

The goal is expected to exceed 500 notebooks or laptops over several weeks and it is hoped the devices can be sourced from organizations with surpluses. Windows-based, new or used notebook computers that are no more than three years old are preferred. Desktops are not preferable because of their size and logistical complexity.

Partners towards the goal

So far Global Storm has partnered with one pan-territorial Indigenous organization to provide notebooks in its schools and with NNSL Media, whose downtown office will serve as a collection point for the donated devices.
"We're in a central location and we'll help out. I've been writing about how critical it is for the education system that we have strong internet connections in the North," said NNSL CEO and publisher Bruce Valpy.
"I hope the notebook donation program is successful. Education is a shambles outside of Yellowknife anyways. The graduation rates are very low and people drop out."

Before the devices are passed onto Global Storm they'll undergo a five-step process at NNSL. 

The notebooks will be sanitized according to NWT health guidelines, their basic details will be logged, asset tags will be added if need be, they won’t be powered up or turned on at NNSL, and NNSL will remove any Microsoft license information tags before transporting them to Global Storm for final delivery. 

Once the company receives the notebooks, Global Storm will wipe the hard drives according to NIST 800-88 Clear guidelines and Windows OS will be reinstalled using software licensed by the relevant education authorities. Donor licensing will not be used. Global Storm will install, setup and configure all the needed software for each end user. 

The company will ship the systems to regional centres, or community schools as directed, which will include a letter informing education authorities about who donated the notebooks. Finally, the company will work with each regional authority to assist with giving out the notebooks to students and families. 

Northern Remote Learning Plan

The procurement of notebooks is part of Global Storm’s larger Northern Remote Learning Plan that seeks to connect all hardware and software necessary to remotely provide the full array of education services to in-home students across the North, according to a company document on the plan.

In partnership with other NWT IT companies and a satellite provider, Global Storm has developed a compact, portable system that can be transported easily to any NWT or Nunavut community by air. It would take about seven days to move from crew mobilization to functional broadband internet availability. 

While necessary devices such as switches, routers and firewalls are readily available, Global Storm said "last mile" capability is a common problem for many communities but easy to quickly resolve. 

This challenging time has presented an opportunity to assist the most vulnerable children in our Northern communities,” said Marshall. “They are our future."

Computing access a longstanding issue

The Northern Remote Learning Plan is the latest effort to accelerate computing access for remote communities, but it's not the only one. For at least 15 years the Smart Communities Society in Yellowknife has been receiving used computers from the federal and territorial governments, the RCMP, private donors and other sources to refurbish them and distribute them to school boards.

"We’ve (recently) broadened our mandate and have been able to give them to community organizations and Indigenous communities," said executive director Chris Hunt, who added that since 2008 the society has given out more than 10,000 computers. 

The most it ever managed to distribute in one year was about 1,000, Hunt said. 

Laptops are the most sought-after items, but the society also receives desktops from the government donors.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the federal government donated a large batch of computers and the society gave 200 laptops to communities in late February. 

In Hunt's view, the need for computers in remote communities is very high, and he estimates 2,000 to 4,000 are needed in the NWT.

"We're still researching it, but we find some communities are 15 years behind in terms of access.

"I think it’s a good moment for people to pause and realize how tough it is. These are our communities, 29 primarily Indigenous communities. It’s not fair. If they didn't have access to books that wouldn't be acceptable. But it’s the same with technology. To the same level if not more. The term ‘digital literacy’ is pretty appropriate. We need to put the ‘digital’ in ‘digital literacy’ first."

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of reliable internet access for Northerners, and last month spurred Dene artist Melaw Nakehk'o to launch a petition urging Northwestel to waive data overage fees and establish unlimited data plans until July.

RELATED REPORTING: Internet access a necessity, says petition aimed at Northwestel

Government services will be centralized on the new NWT eServices Portal, expected to launch by the end of 2020, said Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek. Pixabay image