Be it through solid rock or suspended from utility poles, planners with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador hope a new network will help keep students in school.

A new Frame-Relay system built by Aliant Telecom was unveiled last October, connecting 63 communities (with an additional 11

via wireless technologies) and more than 800 students throughout the province as part of the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.

“”We needed to have a good, reliable, fast connection,”” says Wade Sheppard, director for the centre, part of the province’s Department of Education.

Facing declining enrolment rates and a growing number of adults who haven’t finished high school, Sheppard says the network adds a flexible approach to the provincial education system. “”This is a good alternative application for older students.””

Sheppard says there were about 160,000 secondary students in the province during the 1970s. Currently, there are about 83,000 and by 2010, that number is expected to drop to 59,000. A major study conducted about four years ago encouraged the development of e-learning programs to keep students in school in their own communities. The network aims to fulfill that goal, Sheppard says.

The centre, which was initiated about a year and a half ago, is now offering 18 online courses, including math, French, science and technology. That number should grow to more than 40 in the next few years. Up to 20 new schools could also be added this year.

“”We wanted to offer the core courses, but we didn’t want to restrict ourselves just to this,”” Sheppard says. He estimates it takes about four months to put each course together.

Computers tend to be located in schools, but the network is also accessible from students’ homes and Community Access Program sites, which are part of a federal initiative to provide community access to computers and the Internet. Up to six computers are available at each learning site, with one PC allocated per student.

Instructors are also located in different places, such as Port Aux Basques and Gander, as well as St. John’s, bucking a trend towards centralization in electronic learning.

“”In most virtual schools, you will find teachers instructing students in remote locations, mostly from home,”” Sheppard says. “”We wanted to disseminate the skills through people throughout the province.””

By providing computer access in schools, students are also able to use a mix of face-to-face and online learning, incorporating both the classroom and the network.

The project involves students spending about half their time interacting with teachers, the other half with online materials. Using Elluminate’s vClass software, students can use voice-over IP applications to talk with their instructors. Other features include real-time chat, applications sharing, and graphical presentation software. Graphic tablets further develop whiteboard capabilities, letting students write or draw freehand.

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