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Area schools embracing 'telepresence' technology
District administrators Traci Davis (Juda) and Al Brokopp (Monticello), presented "Telepresence An Alternative Classroom Environment Solution for Rural Schools" Aug. 20 at UW-La Crosse. (Photo supplied)
MONTICELLO - Students in Juda, Albany and Monticello school districts are heading out the door after graduation with more than a high school diploma. Many have a fistful of college credits.

In 2010, the three school districts started meeting to find ways to share resources. District administrators back then thought they could save their districts some money by sharing non-instructional staff, such as a pupil services director and a school psychologist.

Today the three schools are sharing teachers, professional development training and planning sessions while providing their students with more classes, college-level classes, interactive video field trips, guest speakers and opportunities for connections to people around the world.

This inter-district collaboration and teaching is being accomplished face-to-face, without travel expense or loss of teaching time, with a telepresence lab equipped with multiple cameras and high-definition sound, mobile telepresence units and large interactive whiteboards, called Smart Boards, which work like touch-screen computers.

Monticello has a Smart Board in every classroom - 32 of them, said District Administrator Al Brokopp. And each student in grades 6-12 has a laptop to complete this blended world of interactive, classroom and online learning.

Monticello began its telepresence course offerings in 2012 with a college-level psychology class. Through the Cooperative Academic Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the high schools have been able to offer courses for college credits in calculus, pre-calculus, statistics, physics, English, and British Literature. All CAPP courses are taught by university-approved high school instructors, and students earn concurrent high school and college credits.

The schools are also able to offer more advanced placement courses, such as chemistry and U.S. History.

Brokopp said the Monticello's telepresence classroom is not a televised delivery system, where students simply listen to the speaker in another school, nor does it limit dialog to one person speaking at a time.

"If you have four conversations going on in the room at the same time, you can hear them all," he said.

Outside the lab, teachers can use a mobile unit, a slightly smaller video screen - but larger than most flat-screen TVs in homes - on wheels. Monticello now has three mobile units.

Albany has a classroom and one mobile unit and offers the physical science and college English courses. Juda has a mobile unit and teaches the calculus course.

To make the class times work, the three schools have synchronized their schedules.

Teachers also use the telepresence technology for working with peers in other schools to develop lesson plans and course ideas. Brokopp noted each of the three schools has an art department, a Spanish department and a business department, but only one teacher in each department. Working together, they can create departments of three people for sharing ideas.

"It's hard to bounce ideas off of yourself," he said.

Students are definitely taking advantage of the new offerings. Many students are graduating with extra college credits in their pockets, according to Brokopp. One senior graduated this spring with 27 credits.

Students - or their parents - are paying extra for these higher level classes, but through CAPP program, the cost per credit is only about one-third the cost of a regular college class on campus. This year, new state legislation has made it possible for students to get two classes free through the program, and all the credits are, of course, transferable to the UW school system.

No money changes hands between the three school districts for this inter-district teaching cooperation, Brokopp said.

But there are start-up costs. A mobile unit costs about $11,000; the telepresence lab comes in at less than $40,000, said Brokopp.

To make their telepresence magic happen, Monticello has relied upon grants and committed teachers. The school has received three Wisconsin Technology Initiative grants of $25,000 each, so far. Monsanto has made two grants, of $10,000 each. The school also received Rural Energy for American Program (REAP) funds.

Teachers are working to advance their certifications to teach the upper level classes and to develop syllabuses.

Most importantly, the school has had community and school board "buy-in," said Brokopp, which helped the district get a new, 5-year referendum passed this spring.

The program is becoming a success story.

Brokopp and Juda District Administrator Traci Davis presented "Telepresence - An Alternative Classroom Environment Solution for Rural Schools" during the Blended Learning Conference Aug. 20 at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Using live video conferencing with their math instructors Chris Collins and Scott Anderson back in Monticello, Brokopp and Davis demonstrated how the use of an instructional telepresence environment has transformed their schools.

The schools had been asked to tell the story of how J.A.M. (Juda-Albany-Monticello) has increased course offerings and made curriculum more rigorous using telepresence.

They are being asked to present again at a meeting of Supporting Learning and Technology in Education (SLATE) in December at Chicago State University. The topic is on defining hybrid learning, and what to consider in balancing face-to-face vs. online.

They have also been invited to tell their story to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Technology Initiative this fall.