Technology changing the face of education for Dist. 11 students

Technology is changing the way students learn Spanish and other subjects at high school in Anoka-Hennepin School District 11.

Seniors Derek Walton (on screen), Ruby Carlson (left) and Steven Mason complete a vocabulary activity during an AP Spanish class last week. Photo by Kelly Johnson
Seniors Derek Walton (on screen), Ruby Carlson (left) and Steven Mason complete a vocabulary activity during an AP Spanish class last week. Photo by Kelly Johnson

That’s because of the district’s new “TelePresence” technology which allows classrooms to link throughout the district.

On any given day, students in different high schools throughout the district join together to take low enrollment, high rigor courses including AP German V, honors building investment, honors advanced speech and AP Spanish this trimester.

The system also allows politics/law 12 and probability and statistics to be “hybrid” classes, meaning students will attend their TelePresence class Mondays and Wednesdays and the other three days will work independently online.

Without the TelePresence system, some schools would not be able to offer the courses and they would be dropped.

Tom Skoglund, an instructional technology facilitator, said TelePresence is audio/visual conference brought to a new level.

Each mainstream high school and the Educational Service Center on Ferry Street in Anoka that houses district staff have a TelePresence room featuring three large screens as well as screens for the teacher to share information.

The six rooms have the same paint, furniture, lighting and fixtures, giving the students and staff miles apart the illusion they are in the same classroom. The video being displayed on the large screens is determined by who is speaking. A thumbnail row of video feeds at the bottom of the panels allows students to see each other.

There are also microphones throughout the rooms, which means students need to be careful about tapping pens and any side conversations during class.

“This is a very life-like experience,” Skoglund said. “Through TelePresence we are able to offer students opportunities they might otherwise not have.”

“It’s definitely different,” said Coon Rapids High School senior Steven Mason, who takes AP Spanish, about the class experience.

The class is “enjoyable,” he said. “It’s fun.”

Teachers teaching classes through TelePresence received training before the end of the last school year and also received additional training in August.

In addition to students benefiting from this technology, the goal is to utilize the TelePresence rooms for staff development training and meetings (saving the district travel costs) as well as making them available for rent to the community. With this in mind, rooms were built in schools in areas that provide easy access to the public for after school hours.

According to Skoglund, the new system is very exciting.

“This opens all kinds of opportunities for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in the future, things we don’t even know about yet,” Skoglund said.

Speculating the district could offer Mandarin Chinese or connect to teachers at colleges or universities, he said, “There are going to be a lot of opportunities to give kids a better educational experience.”

The technology is available through a partnership with Cisco Systems.

Although TelePresence is mostly used by the business and higher education communities, Anoka-Hennepin is not the first K-12 system to adopt this technology. The first was installed by the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative in communities around Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota.

In part because they are launching into a new arena, Cisco has committed about $350,000 of the total cost of installing TelePresence in Anoka-Hennepin schools.

Identified as a strategic investment by administration, the district is paying the remaining amount of the project through a budget fund balance reserve.

Kelly Johnson is at [email protected]