Educational Broadband Use Driving Demand in Conne River, Newfoundland

By Jennifer Leask

If you ask Rod Jeddore , Education Director for St. Anne’s school in , what being “circled” in a classroom is, the answer is different than what you expect. “It’s the circle on the screen, when something is loading, loading, loading….” said Jeddore.

Jeddore and other residents of Conne River provide a perfect example of how demand, rather than supply, is driving broadband development and use.

The small rural community on the South East Coast, situated on the East shore of Bay D’Espoir, includes 900 people of the and the non-native community of Conne River.

Just 180 km from Grand Falls-Windsor, the teachers and students are frustrated at slow speeds and limited bandwidth, since they restrict their ability to access education applications.

Conne River, Newfoundland

Jeddore told First Mile that while connectivity in the classroom is getting better, when it doesn’t work, it has a direct effect on students’ motivation for learning. As an example, a friendly competition of , where the grade three classroom can connect to another community and compete at math to make it more fun, can instead discourage students who suffer unfair advantages when connectivity isn’t what it should be.

“It loses a bit of fun when you have to sit there and lose game time or your ability to compete is diminished [due to a slow connection],” Jeddore said.

Computer room in St. Anne’s school (Photo from Brian Benoit)

While the Internet connection isn’t always perfect, the 200 students at St. Anne’s have the good fortune of being able to access many kinds of technology in the classroom. The school has increased the use of classroom technology as their connectivity has improved, and teachers have embraced new ways of teaching students.

At each stage of improvement in Internet connectivity, the way teachers connect changes, pushing the boundaries of what they can do with those speeds. Charlene Organ, who has been teaching at the school for 20 years, has seen the first hand the excitement when a new tool comes in.

“Technology is a great motivator,” Organ said. She has seen kids who do not like writing and are not confident or interested in the subject, be transformed by using .

“Instead of just using pencil and paper, when the kids get to type their stories they started to like writing,” Organ explained.

Unfortunately, because of a lack of a faster connection, those classroom tools don’t always work the way they should. For example, Organ said, if she wanted to show a video of the life cycle of the butterfly, she would also have a book nearby just in case.

“Kids get impatient if they have to wait, it has to be fast or you lose their attention,” Organ said.

Smart Board in St. Anne’s school (Photo from Brian Benoit)

While that may sound like a good alternative, Organ agrees with Jeddore that the excitement about learning something new can be diminished when online resources are not available.

“If I use the book, it may not be as current as what we would find on the web. So we are not getting up to date information all the time,” Organ said.

Math teacher Norma John doesn’t find drawing a 3-D image for her grade ten class easy. That’s why she loves her Smart Notebook – she can copy an online image and paste it into a file for that class, which allows her to save it for the next time she teaches. Since she started using the Smart Notebook, she has been able to spend more “time on task,” teaching her students instead of trying to draw complex math formulas and pictures.

“I used to put notes on the board, and once it’s erased off the board, it was gone,” says John.

Now she can spend more time in class with the students when they have questions, instead of replicating her work over and over. John also feels technology in the classroom is carrying over to studying math in the home in a new way.

“It’s tremendous in terms of what they can learn,” she said.

John explained that she knows of students who access tools like Khan Academy at home. is a free personalized online learning platform where students can explore topics like computer science, math, science, and art. This allows students to take their learning further by doing research with online classes and digital textbooks.

Keeping broadband up to date is a challenge according to Brian Benoit, who used to be a classroom teacher but has since become the go-to guy for all things technical.

He would know. Benoit set up the school’s first Internet connection back in the 1990s by climbing up on the roof and perching a satellite dish there to create a dial-in server.

First satellite dish installed in Conne River (photo from Brian Benoit)

The school became the community portal to the web. Soon after, commercial providers came in and offered a better connection.

When the school was upgraded to a T1 connection, Brian thought connectivity would be better, but today it still isn’t meeting their needs. With 200 students, a computer lab, and multiple connections for smart boards, iPads and other classroom technology, soon even the faster line wasn’t fast enough.

This was due to the demand created by users: the more people used the technology, the higher demand on the available connectivity.

“It’s weird about the Internet…because when you start out you get dial up and you think, oh that’s almost good, and as soon as you get it you outgrow it. Then you get DSL and out outgrow it immediately,” said Benoit.

“That’s the nature of the beast. When you look at the Internet and the way it’s growing, and the way people access the Internet, your needs change, and as soon as you realize you can do things because of the added bandwidth, you embrace it.”

This illustrates how is it important to think about bandwidth and other broadband resources in terms of what they can do to fill demand, rather than the bare minimum of service they can provide.

For example, Benoit says, his son’s fiber optic connection in St. John’s goes right to his apartment: so one college student has more a powerful connection than an entire school.

“We are like a lot of little communities. We don’t have the kind of competition in business that breeds good price and availability. When they get around to doing things for us, they get around to doing it.” said Benoit.

Being remote isn’t the main issue: an hour and a half away from Grand-Falls Windsor, Conne River is accessible by road.

“We are not isolated by that means. For me, it’s more forgotten than isolated,” said Jeddore.

“It all comes down to the almighty dollar, unfortunately, and the cost to bring the service here is more costly than we can afford as a school for sure, and even more than we can afford as a community.”

He agrees it is the lack of competition and minimum standards that lies at the root of the problem, and since there is only one commercial provider in the community, when the choice is between bad service and nothing, you take, “the lesser of the two evils.”

But, he said, the status quo of keeping rural communities connected to a poor connection is unfair and shouldn’t be happening.

“We have the same obligation as every other school in the country providing a first rate education to all our students and today that’s usually impacted by technology because of the presence of technology and the need for technology in the classroom is greater.”

This community story was produced with the support of a from the (CIRA).