NORTH HAVEN, Maine — The North Haven Community School, which has only 63 students and is in a location that’s 12.5 miles out to sea, may be the definition of remote.
But the advent of technology has meant the world — literally — to this island school and others like it, as cameras, computers and the Internet make it possible to collaborate with students who are far away from the rugged coast of Maine.
This week, educators were happy to learn that the Island Institute in Rockland will receive a $500,000 grant from USDA Rural Development to fund distance learning technology in 15 island and coastal schools.
“Distance learning enables our students to have interactions with other students in larger populations and other environments,” Principal Amy Marx said Friday afternoon. “Without distance learning, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to share beyond the island.”
The grant will be used to purchase video conferencing devices and hub equipment for distance learning opportunities in schools on Chebeague Island, Islesboro, Long Island, Matinicus Island, North Haven, Bar Harbor, Trenton, Southwest Harbor, Isle au Haut, Frenchboro, Bass Harbor, East Machias, Jonesport, Cranberry Isles and Deer Isle. It follows a 2009 grant that the Island Institute received to start the work of implementing distance learning technology, according to Ruth Kermish-Allen, the education director for the nonprofit organization.
“We’re very, very excited,” she said Friday. “Especially out in these pretty isolated rural schools, we’re excited to get this technology into the classrooms … they can invite the world in and share with the world what they have to offer, too.”
Distance learning technology has helped let students take part in programs as large in scope as the Island Institute’s WeatherBlur project, which seeks to let students, teachers, fishermen and scientists in Maine and Alaska better understand the impacts of weather and climate on their coastal communities.
It also helps schools solve more localized problems — such as having just a student or two per grade in the one-and-two room outer island schools. Kermish-Allen said that through the technology, the island schools are joining forces and creating reading groups formed by age and ability. Students from different islands who are at the same reading level can push each other to improve, she said.
“They finally have peers in the same reading level,” she said. “They’re finally getting to expand their abilities to read. It’s been a great experience, and this new equipment will help us do that more seamlessly.”
Something else that’s been made possible by distance learning technology is the Eastern Maine Skippers Program, created by educators from Deer Isle-Stonington High School and the Penobscot East Resource Center. Through it, 45 students from seven coastal high schools are trying to answer the question of what fishermen need to make winter flounder a viable fishery in Maine. The students have had virtual classes and collaborative meetings, to share what they’ve learned while doing their research, Marx said.
“There’s a variety of ways we already use it,” she said of distance learning. “We want to move it forward.”
The grant money should make that happen, according to Kermish-Allen, who said that this round of funding will help purchase mobile video cameras and microphones. That will allow students to take the world with them when they do projects and research around the island.
“Getting more technology out there really helps facilitate creativity,” she said.