Minnesota Schools Create Positive Outcomes from Technology

Sometimes at the Blandin Foundation we feel like gardeners. We sow seeds, we nourish projects and we wait to see what grows. It’s been fun to watch the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC) flourish especially as they receive attention (Minnesota Public Radio and Cisco website) for their success.

As Cisco reports…

Dr Michael Johnson believes that one should “never waste a good crisis.” In recent years the provost of Itasca Community College (ICC) has faced more than his share: beginning in 2005, declining enrolments in northeastern Minnesota dealt a serious blow to institutions of higher learning, as well as local elementary and secondary schools. As a result, colleges and schools funded by the state based on student population found their budgets stretched beyond the breaking point.

But Johnson and his colleagues in administration have turned obstacles into triumph: as part of the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC), the college now works in close partnership with a consortium of seven rural Minnesota K-12 school districts to share resources and provide the highest quality education possible for their students. Supported by a robust networking infrastructure, standardized systems and innovative technology tools, IASC members are ensuring that geography and distance no longer limit academic opportunity.

Blandin is pleased to have played a supporting role in the transformation. We invested $50,000 in MIRC funds through the Lightspeed grant program and $750,000 in regular grant funding to build two “immersive telepresence classrooms” in the IASC districts and related training.  (Subsequent funding includes $1.76 million in federal dollars, $1.76 investment from vendor partners and district investments of approximately $1.5 million.)

While Cisco gets into some of the details of how it happened, Minnesota Public Radio details the fruits of IASC’s labor…

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.

[School Superintendent Matt] Grose 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.

We are pleased to see hard work and investment reap such benefits. We wanted to share an added perspective from IASC Technology Services Director Lora Mathison…

“This golden thread of connectivity allows classroom students to take trigonometry, dislocated workers to be retooled, agencies to offer state-of-the-art trainings for staff and business meetings to be scheduled without drive time.  The expansion to the community is only in infant stages… the expanded opportunities  for students, families, staff, community, businesses, medical institutions, non-profits and others will only be limited by creativity.  The future promises to bring new ways to utilize the telepresence classrooms that have not even been thought of yet.”

“As exciting and successful as this project has been for IASC and the region, it is just a glimpse of what may follow.  Fundamental changes in public education are on the horizon and innovative technology solutions such as telepresence will be able to offer transitional support.”

And while we’re celebrating Grand Rapids Area’s efforts around education, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune on the Strive Partnership…

Known as the Strive Partnership, the program follows this strategy: Identify specific goals, come up with a common way to measure those goals, and do so by using a rigorous set of data that can be shared with everyone. Each community sets its own priorities for improving education for students “from cradle to career.”

The Deer River School District is using the approach for an effort called Itasca Area Student Success Initiative.

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