NL, My Home: 01–Francois Part 1

I may have mentioned that my professional ‘thing’ is distance education. No–it’s not at all what you think, I’m willing to bet! Here k-12 distance education is not an option; it’s an integral part of the high school system in most rural schools. It’s also not ‘impersonal.’ Perhaps in your mind you are seeing students gathered around computers (okay) working hard (I hope) on ‘stuff’ that they have to ‘submit’ (duh). Well, alright, that’s partly true. I hope they are working hard but they are definitely not alone. Our flavor of distance education emphasizes frequent, regular real time contact between students and instructors. Just like in a regular classroom. We handle this through an online web conferencing system called Blackboard Collaborate(tm) and you will find posts from back in July that partially describe this. We also use good quality videoconferencing so we can see one another, when necessary. More importantly so we can see what we are doing–vital for art, music, science labs, design and fabrication and such.

The distance education instructors–we call them eTeachers–can be anywhere. Here in St. Johns, for example, there are 11. Overall there are 34, situated all over the province. We work with 105 schools, again located all over the province. All over the rural part of the province–which is about 99.9% of it!

Site visits are done, as needed. As you might imagine, these can sometimes be challenging! After all, if travel was easy, safe and cheap we would not need k-12 distance education.

A few years back we began teaching ‘design and fabrication’ via distance. This grade eleven course is really about the design and fabrication process. In the course, students earn how to articulate design problems, suggest and choose solutions, design those solutions in 2D and 3D, fabricate them using CNC (computer numerical control) machines and, finally, test and redesign them. It’s fascinating! The instructional solution draws on just about everything we have to offer. The students:

  • meet, online, using Collaborate, each class period with Tim Goodyear, the instructor, to ‘cover’ class material;
  • work on their design portfolio using 2D and 3D design tools and store the portfolios in a Learning Management System;
  • Learn how to use the CNC machine, mostly using videoconference where Tim and the students can each see what the other is doing;
  • Use the CNC machines. Tim has remote desktop management software so he can remotely hit the kill switch if necessary. He’s also watching via videoconference.

We’ve been at it for 5 years now and it’s working well. Tim’s in Gander and the students are…all over the place. Welcome to the 21st century!

Sometimes, however we do have to visit face to face. The CNC machines, for example, are heavy, contrary beasts so we go to the sites ourselves and set them up. Tim, along with Frank Shapleigh (who,  by the way can install an arse in a cat) make an initial visit to a new site to install the CNC machine and ensure that the onsite people know how to operate it safely.

Some visits are harder than others :>)

One such visit, to a south coast community called Francois (the locals pronounce it Fran Sway) proved to me more of a challenge than most. The equipment arrived later than we would have liked. It’s not used much before Christmas but Francois is very remote. It’s nested in the back of a long fiord on the province’s rugged south coast. No roads–too far; too rugged. No airport–wait until you see the picture of the community; you’ll see why). Just a ferry–a long ferry ride after a longer road trip–or helicopter. On the trip in question the mode of transport had to be helicopter as the ferry was unavailable.

The helicopter was based at St. Alban’s. That’s a long, lonely road trip all the way from Gander. Oh, it was December, did I mention that?


All photos are courtesy of Frank Shapleigh.

Up and away. A bit of a breeze, between 30-40 knots. The helicopter was buffeted a fair bit. Quite a mauzy start to the day. At least it was not snowing.


The blue haze was partly due to to the windshield and partly due to the weather. The bog–the bare patch above–was surprisingly ‘green’. Yes, it gets browner than that!


Look — moose! Hey, you try and hold the camera steady when the wind is bouncing off the aircraft!


As you run along the south coast the ground gets rougher; barren. Long ago glaciers scraped along the land, carrying away most of the soil and leaving long striations in the rocks.


But the small rivers still manage to find a way through the granite.


It’s not hard to see why we affectionately refer to the island of Newfoundland as ‘the rock.’ It’s much calmer down in the sound (fjord) but don’t let the placid-appearing water fool you. Sounds are famous for wicked updrafts and other nasty wind-related tricks. Think you could climb out? Think again!


The water that runs along the high tablelands has to make its way to the sea somehow. Sometimes the last few metres are almost straight down.


Almost there. Francois, as far as we know, was first settled in the late 1700s as a fishing community. It’s economy is still viable and it has survived resettlement efforts. The people love their community and they love their children. That’s why we have to visit.

We are looking up at the head of the sound. The community is way up around the bend. You’re not walking in!

There’s no road.


There it is. The aircraft is heaving around with the updrafts. The pilot is not sure he can land with a full load on. He will try and make the trip in with just Tim, Frank and the CNC machine. The helicopter lands at the top of a hill. Way up. Two out.


That’s not a great feeling. You are standing approximately 200 m above the sea and it’s almost straight down. Don’t look down. Look the other way.


Not much better. It’s a long way out if you have to walk. You have to go way around the far side of the community and slowly make your way back in. Good luck with that unless you have the proper gear.

Frank describes what happened next: The helicopter descended down into the fjord and headed toward the helipad, buffeted all the time. The next thing he knew, all he could see way grey (sky) through the windshield as the thing went almost vertical. The pilot recovered, leveled out and said, “that’s it, the wind’s too high. We can’t make it in.”

The helicopter returned to the outcrop, picked up the few souls there, and headed back to St.Albans.


Another time. It would just have to wait.


Back over Bay D’Espoir (pronounced ‘despair’ but it means the opposite). See the hydro generator?


Look the moose are still there!


Back to base. A three-hour drive back to Gander is ahead.

Yes, another time. The next one got scrubbed too, but before the road part was over. No air time.

The third try was the lucky one.

Next post.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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23 Responses to NL, My Home: 01–Francois Part 1

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    Fascinating! I’m amazed that it’s economically viable. Great descriptions and pics.

    • Lobsters in particular, but there are quite a few viable species available and the community is close to the fishing grounds. It’s still under a lot of pressure, though. Jobs in the oil and gas industry tend to pay very well…

  2. Great story of dedication to the education of young folk. Ah, water are those circles in the ater in the last shot? Fishing nets?

  3. Mjollnir says:

    Great post Maurice. As you’ve noted before I’m struck by the similarities to NW Scotland/Norway’s Vestlan and your neck of the fjord. 🙂

  4. elkement says:

    Thanks – I really learned something new! I am wondering if such a system would make sense in Austrian alpine areas – but I am not aware of anything comparable here.

    • We have made it work through a long period of dedication. No magic!Teaching this way is not easy–I always say that if it were, that’s the system we would have gravitated to years ago. The results show that it works though. These days, as the students interact more and more in an online fashion–much as we are now–it’s becoming more and more of a mainstream activity. In future posts I will blend in a little more of how it works and what we do to make it happen.

  5. jennypellett says:

    Better than any geography lesson – thanks, Maurice!

  6. 1) Why didn’t WP tell me about your post ? (need to unfollow and refollow)

    2) Unbelievable photos

    3) That is serious claustrophobia country.

  7. bluonthemove says:

    I’ve been involved with distance learning, providing Continuing Medical Education programs for medics in the USA in conjunction with the AMA. I’ve also been to visit a university in Saudi Arabia, and was shown the communications systems used to transmit the lectures down to off campus buildings where the female students could view to them.

  8. Tracy says:

    This is amazing. Your dedication to distance learning is very inspiring and such as good idea for remote communities. The photos and explanation of what happened through the journey really bring home how tough some environments are (but also very beautiful).

    • Thanks! It contrasts with the view held by so many that distance education is somehow ‘easier.’ It’s been my experience that it’s the opposite BUT, here we emphasize quality and in particular, equality of opportunity. Too often half-arsed distance education is rolled out as a cost saving measure–an action that (1) does the students little good and (2) sullies the reputation of what could be an excellent ‘thing’ if done right.

    • By the way–been working the last few days on a five or six part series on the history of distance education in my province. It’s been my thing for a long time and, with retirement coming in August I want to get some of it down before the old brain starts to forget! I’ll probably start posting on Sunday or Monday once I get it all in at least first draft.

  9. momshieb says:

    Fascinating post and amazing photos. As a teacher in a suburban school, I am very much interested in the on line, distance education idea. I do believe that it is the future!

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