Arctic perspective: The Opportunities of Online Education

Text Maija Tulimaa
Illustration Marjaana Sivonen

At the beginning of March 2020, we were informed that all our university courses will be moved online. The University of Akureyri (North Iceland) decided to close all its doors, and there was no opportunity to use the library or gym either. As a Finnish student living in a small Icelandic city, I immediately started to think about my possibility to travel back to my family and friends in Finland.

When Iceland decides to close its restaurants, cafés and public outdoor pools, it is a clear sign that things are taken seriously. Icelandic geothermal pools are as dear to Icelanders as saunas are to Finnish people. Iceland is a small country, with a population of 370 000 people. When Iceland confirmed the first Covid-19 case at the end of February 2020, the snowball effect started. Suddenly thousands of Icelanders were in quarantine. By the end of March, I knew it would be my time to go home to continue my studies online and interact with my professors through emails and Zoom meetings.

Seven months later I am sitting at Petronella in the University of Lapland. I am sipping my coffee and keep forgetting what we all have been going through during the past months. Fortunately, we are in Lapland. Even though Iceland and my home university are far away, I am grateful for the opportunity to study in Rovaniemi.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed global inequalities. It might feel cosy to live in Lapland, which is a big, quiet and sparsely populated area. To take even more distance from other people we can go for walks in the silent forests or next to a beautiful lake. There are days I might even forget the global pandemic is threatening us all. Sadly, a person living in a small apartment in a busy city has no option but hope she will not get the disease. The only thing she can do is to follow the current restrictions and recommendations of her country – if there are any.

There are days I might even forget the global pandemic is threatening us all. Sadly, a person living in a small apartment in a busy city has no option but hope she will not get the disease.

Studying and working from home has been the reality for many of us during the past months. It has caused both opportunities and challenges to people around the globe. Not all of us have broadband access or a computer. Having no access to might sound odd, but even in the Arctic, there are regions, where the internet connection is not self-evident.

For some of us living under the Covid-19 pandemic might have felt relatively smooth. I have had more time to see my family and friends in Finland. I have been staying in my summer cottage, hometown and in Rovaniemi. As a nomadic soul, I have felt free. However, the pandemic has also caused a lot of uncertainty, fear and anxiety to many of us. A lot of people have lost their jobs, and some have even dropped out of school. We have lost our daily routines. These challenges are something we should not hide but talk more openly to overcome the time of uncertainty together. Although people might be tired to talk about the pandemic, it is still affecting us in one way or another. Therefore, we should not underestimate the well-being and mental health of ourselves or other people.

The Covid-19 might not be the only pandemic we face in our lifetime. Learning from this experience, we can be more prepared for future challenges. Not only should we react when things get difficult but learn from our past experiences. Remembering to grow our resilience is crucial. Being prepared in advance would help us to face the challenging times before the future crisis hits us.

During the past months, we might have faced some difficulties with our studies, and it might have been hard to keep motivated to work on our tasks alone, without support from classmates and teachers. I believe face-to-face interactions are vital to every human being. However, the quick change from on-campus teaching to online lectures, webinars and conferences has also shown capabilities universities and many organisations have.

Fortunately, we can learn something from the current pandemic. Transferring some of the events and meetings online, we can save money and have more time to be with our loved ones. In the future, we can offer more courses and programs online. Still today plenty of people live in isolated rural communities without the possibility to study secondary or higher education in their regions. Online education could be one solution to enable people to stay in their home community. Digitalisation, broadband access and different online platforms could give these people a chance to study a degree online. Being able to get an education online, they could be knowledgeable and active community members without leaving their home regions for years to a city from where they may never return.

Studying and working remotely can give us a chance to expand our possibilities in the future. In some of the Arctic regions, there is a growing trend toward outmigration. One of the big reasons for outmigration is the lack of educational opportunities or poor regional job prospects. Especially women leave their home communities for higher education and better career paths. Naturally, female outmigration leads to higher male sex ratio and may eventually affect birth rates in a certain area. For years many Arctic regions have been challenged by the ageing population, school closures and outmigration of high-skilled labour (‘brain drain’). Thus, for example, regional development and economic growth may be impacted in the short and long term. If a place does not offer educational opportunities, finding work is difficult and there are no options for career growth, the most formally educated people will leave elsewhere – and maybe never return. Even though moving to a larger city can be a great alternative to some, it is not for everyone.


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