Learning in a digital classroom: Telepresence rooms at Anoka-Hennepin save classes, bring students together

Lujain Al-Khawi
Lujain Al-Khawi, Blaine High School
When students enter one of the Telepresence classrooms in the Anoka-Hennepin district, they walk into a brightly-lit room filled with laptops, long tables and about a dozen chairs. While this might seem like a normal classroom setting, three giant screens are hung in the front of the room. Small cameras also are positioned at different angles in the front of the room, allowing for better eye contact when other students’ faces are on the screens.

When he began talking during the interview, Jeffrey McGonigal’s voice was as clear as a bell and he appeared to be just across the room.

I almost forgot he was speaking to me from more than 10 miles away.

Talking to him from Blaine, I interviewed McGonigal, the Anoka-Hennepin School District assistant superintendent, while he was in Anoka using Blaine High School’s Cisco Telepresence classroom, a videoconferencing room that allows students to interact with others across the state. He was using a similar Telepresence classroom in the Educational Services Center in Anoka, where Anoka-Hennepin staff oversee the six different Cisco System units in the district’s high schools.

This new technology was installed in the district to bring students from different schools to a single class­room, keeping afloat classes that did not draw many students at individual schools, school officials say.

“It was an opportunity to provide courses across our high school that may have been cut at individual high schools due to low enrollment,” said Tom Skoglund, Anoka-Hennepin’s instructional technology facilitator. “We also saw the potential for other kinds of collaborations within our district and with external locations.”

For many students, the Cisco Telepresence classroom is a new expe­rience that they seem to be enjoying.

“I really like being connected to all of the other classes and getting to meet kids from other schools,” said Anoka High School junior Courtney Dawson.

Jeffrey McGonigal, the Anoka-Hennepin School District assistant superintendent, talks with ThreeSixty journalist Lujain Al-Khawi through the Cisco Telepresence technology during an interview in March at Blaine High School. McGonigal was in Anoka at the time. (ThreeSixty Journalism staff)

Other students, such as Blaine senior Haseeb Zahid, are pleased with their school’s nontraditional approach to education.

“I think it’s good to have experi­enced a new way of learning,” Zahid said. “Some people may learn better with computers and others learn a different way.”

Rather than deny an entire course to a few individuals, schools have used the Cisco Telepresence technology to partner with other schools to offer low-demand courses to increase class sizes. The Anoka-Hennepin district connects with its several high schools.

Due to a budget surplus, the district expanded technologically, spending $1.35 million, according to Skoglund, to install the new com­puter-active meeting rooms that con­nect students from different schools through videoconferencing, audio recognition and mirrored computer screens.

This school year is Anoka-Hennepin’s third using the technol­ogy. During its first year, district staff were unfamiliar with the system. However, they were excited to use the same technology as large companies across the globe.

“We bring to high school students what major corporations use on a regular basis,” said Kevin Moorhead, a business teacher at Champlin Park High School. “Students are being pre­sented with the latest in curriculum presentation capabilities.”

When students enter one of the Telepresence classrooms in the Anoka-Hennepin district, they walk into a brightly-lit room filled with laptops, long tables and about a dozen chairs. While this might seem like a normal classroom setting, three giant screens are hung in the front of the room. Small cameras also are positioned at different angles in the front of the room, allowing for better eye contact when other students’ faces are on the screens.

However, students can never see themselves on-screen, only faces from other schools. When more than two schools join a single classroom, the cameras switch screens when somebody from another school speaks, thanks to audio-recognition microphones.

“The Telepresence classrooms have been well-designed,” said McGonigal, who was one of the big­gest proponents of the installation of the rooms in his district. “... My first reaction was that I was very pleased.”

While this new technology might spell good news to students who otherwise would not have been able to take a certain course, some mixed emotions still exist around the dis­trict due to the technology’s limita­tions in providing the same experi­ence as a traditional classroom.

“There are certainly challenges with being in this room,” Skoglund said. “...You certainly are not going to feel the same connection through that screen as you would face-to-face.”

However, Anoka-Hennepin’s school officials are doing all they can to make sure students do not miss out on learning when they are placed in the Cisco classrooms, accord­ing to Skoglund. In fact, he is always monitoring the Telepresence units throughout the district and is there to assist teachers when minor glitches in the technology occur—a problem that has improved throughout the years.

While some teachers would prefer to teach in their regular classrooms, such as Anoka High School’s Robert Boero, who’s in his second year using the new technology, they are begin­ning to enjoy the video-conferencing experience.

“My initial reaction was being overwhelmed to the new technology, especially since I had not previously taught this class,” said Boero, a busi­ness teacher. “The technology is fairly user-friendly, though. Just like with anything, it got easier the second time around.”

Community members have benefitted from the technology, as well. The Anoka-Hennepin district has begun to open its Telepresence classroom in the Educational Services Center to community education classes. Last year, community mem­bers watched rehabilitated sea mam­mals all the way from Florida and asked questions using the technology.

The district is also looking into other opportunities for other external uses; however, this is a work in prog­ress, according to Skoglund.

“I would expect that [difficulty of finding outside collaboration] is going to change,” said Skoglund, “as more facilities have this kind of tech­nology and it opens up the chance to communicate.

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