New technology to offer low-enrollment, high-rigor course for district students

When students interested in taking Advanced Placement (AP) German V found out their class would be available because of a new technology in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, their first thought might have been “serh gut!” (very good).

Through a partnership with Cisco Systems, the worldwide leader in networking that transforms how people connect, communicate and collaborate, the Anoka-Hennepin School District is investing in “TelePresence” technology to link classrooms throughout the district. Parents and students who attended Champlin Park High School’s open house Wednesday, Aug. 29 had the opportunity to tour the TelePresence classrooms.

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 St. in Anoka housing district staff each will have a TelePresence room featuring three large screens as well as screens for the teacher to share information. The six rooms will 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.

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

Overall, the courses offered through TelePresence are those with low enrollment and high rigor. Without the TelePresence system, some schools would not be able to offer the courses and they would be dropped. In addition to AP German V, courses being offered the first trimester are honors building investment, honors advanced speech, and AP Spanish. 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 weeks will work independently online. Teachers teaching classes through TelePresence received training before the end of the last school year and will receive additional training in August.

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.

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.

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