High tech classrooms in northeast Minnesota redefine distance learning

Remote-learning classroom
Ojibwe language teacher Gerald White sits in a classroom with students at Deer River High School. Pictured on the video screen is Lizzy Procopio, a student taking the class remotely from a telepresence classroom in Remer, 25 miles away. Proposents of the system say it creates the illusion that everyone is in the same room.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

A school district collaborative in northeast Minnesota is using video technology to link classrooms with others in the region.

The Itasca Area Schools Collaborative is using a $1 million federal grant to help pay for the distance-learning initiative.

Through a technology called telepresence, it creates the illusion that students miles apart are in the same classroom.

Interactive television isn't new. Schools have been doing distance learning for years. But the Ojibwe language telepresence classroom at Deer River High School goes well beyond a simple TV monitor and a camera.

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At a pair of long desks, teacher Gerald White and eight high school students recently recited Ojibwe phrases. They faced three huge, high-definition screens at the front of the room. In an identical classroom 25 miles away in Remer, Minn., a classmate was in a room with the same furniture, tan walls and carpet. She also recited Ojibwe phrases, giving the impression that they were all a few feet from each other.

White is the only Ojibwe language teacher within the seven districts that comprise the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative. He said telepresence technology makes him a more effective teacher.

"You can reach out to more kids, and the kids that don't have languages in their school," White said. "This system will enable them to have access to language... To me it's like being right in the room with the kids."

Matt Gross
Matt Gross is superintendent of the Deer River School District. Gross says the region's new high tech interactive television system, known as telepresence, is a huge step up from older distance learning tools. He says it's offering rural students opportunities they didn't have before.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

To use the technology, White clicks on a laptop screen. Its display shows up for all students simultaneously on the large screens. Students can view pictures or movies together, all in real time.

The new technology is expensive. The classroom in Deer River alone cost more than $200,000. But Superintendent Matt Gross said the old ITV system was not adequate because it did not engage students.

"The audio was difficult, the video was difficult and the systems were cumbersome and complicated," Gross said. "They worked okay, but in the end, it didn't produce the kind of experience that really felt collaborative."

The collaborating school districts will link classrooms hundreds of miles apart from each other. So far, there are telepresence classrooms in Deer River, Remer and Nashwauk. Next year they'll be joined by identical rooms at high schools in Grand Rapids, Bigfork and Greenway. There will also be smaller classrooms set up at elementary schools across the region.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help cover the $1.5 million dollar price tag.

Teachers are using telepresence classrooms for Spanish and Ojibwe, but next year, the district will offer 17 courses in them, ranging from literature and writing, to business, mass marketing and calculus.

School officials say the uses go beyond academic courses. The technology also will allow students to talk to people anywhere in the world, and take virtual field trips to places like NASA and the Smithsonian Museums.

Gross said modern distance learning technology levels the playing field for school districts that are remote and sparsely populated. It allows them to hire specialized teachers and share the costs.

"Our kids in Deer River are going to have opportunities to take higher level courses that we can't offer here, or at least that we don't have the enrollment to justify a teacher for," he said. "All of the sudden you can justify running that course and you have kids that are getting access to things that are rigorous and relevant. And we think that's important."

It appears that only a very small handful of K-12 schools and college campuses in Minnesota are using the newest generation of interactive technology.

Doug Lund is director of the Consortium of Minnesota Educational Telecommunications, said there's no question that students benefit from the quality delivered by the technology.

"As the overall quality of the interactive television experience and the telepresence sort of continues to improve and as the costs come down, we are likely to see far more of these kinds of facilities," he said. "But right now the biggest barrier is cost. "

School officials say they'll try to defray the cost of the system by finding other uses. They'll make it available to private businesses and government groups for meetings. They're also talking about using telepresence to offer college courses for adults at night.