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LP schools use technology to help improve communication, learning

November 12, 2007

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

A group of young people is sitting in a room reading a question on a screen. They enter their responses into hand-held remotes, and their answers are transmitted by radio frequency to a host computer, and the number of responses and the percentage of correct answers is displayed on the screen.

The scene is not the set of a game show in Hollywood, but a biology classroom in Lester Prairie.

The technology that makes this possible came to the attention of Lester Prairie science teacher Greg Landkamer while he was taking a graduate class at Hamline University.

He experienced the system as a student, and could see its potential.

“As an educator, I was thoroughly convinced that this was the way to go,” Landkamer said.

He was so impressed by the system, he told Superintendent Joe Miller that if the school didn’t have the money to buy the system, he would personally match the funds to make the purchase possible.

Miller found the money, and the system was introduced in all four of Landkamer’s classes this year.

Lester Prairie Secondary Principal Scott Fitzsimonds is also enthusiastic about the system.

The system requires all students to participate, but allows them to do so in a non-threatening environment.

Fitzsimonds said many students are not comfortable raising their hands or answering questions in class. The “clicker” system allows them to participate without fear or embarrassment.

Each student is assigned a remote identified by a serial number. The instructor knows how each student answers, but students do not see how their classmates answer.

Another benefit of the system is that the instructor knows right away if students are getting the message.

“It provides immediate feedback and allows the instructor to monitor students’ comprehension during the learning process,” Fitzsimonds said.

During a lecture, the instructor will display a question on the screen. Students enter their answers, and the percentage of correct responses is displayed.

A minimum of 80 percent of the class must answer correctly. If the percentage is less than 80 percent, the instructor asks students to talk among themselves and convince their neighbors to change their answers, a process Landkamer calls “peer tutoring.”

Then, students are allowed to enter their responses again until at least 80 percent of the class has the right answer.

This immediate feedback tells the instructor if the students understand the subject, or if he needs to go back and review some elements.

“It allows me to monitor the understanding of the whole group, not just a few students who are comfortable raising their hands,” Landkamer said.

Fitzsimonds said the students he has talked to love the system.

“It has the ‘cool factor,’” he explained.

Landkamer said the acceptance of the system is due in part to a “game show mentality” that people have today.

“Hands down, this is making a difference,” Landkamer said. “It is just another tool, and it is working well.”

He said he is just beginning to tap into the potential of the system.

For example, the system can also be used to administer tests, and allows scores to be calculated and compiled immediately.

Landkamer said this kind of efficiency will help to offset some of the additional preparation time that is needed to program questions into the system.

Other ways the school is using technology

In addition to the clicker system, Lester Prairie schools have found ways to use technology to improve communication and offer a broader range of classes.

Fitzsimonds said the school’s new web site (www.lp.k12.mn.us) includes a “My View” feature that allows parents to customize the site to give them only the information they want, which may include assignments, activities, and even details about what their child is having for lunch.

Fitzsimonds said some parents monitor their child’s lunch account to find out not only how much is being spent on lunches, but what items are purchased. Parents can also set up daily spending limits for their children.

“The My View feature makes it very easy for parents to get the information they want,” Fitzsimonds said.

He added that anyone can use the My View feature, and alumni or relatives can use it for things such as checking the schedule of a sports team or other activities.

Another form of technology is the schools emergency notification system.

It was set up with each student’s primary contact number, but parents can customize their account to add up to three additional messaging techniques, including cell phones, text messages, or e-mail.

“The system has the capacity to make up to 150,000 phone calls in 10 minutes,” Fitzsimonds said.

The system is used to notify parents about schedule changes such as snow days or early releases.

“If the basketball team is coming back from a game and the bus breaks down, the coach can call an 800 number, and automatically notify the parents,” Fitzsimonds said.

He added that the system is also used to notify parents of absences. Not only does this save significant time for school secretaries, but it ensures that parents get the message.

“A lot of parents have long commutes and leave home early. We used to call and leave a message on the home answering machine, but if the student was at home, he might erase the message, and the parent would never find out about it,” Fitzsimonds said.

Now, parents can add and change contact information, which allows them to add cell phone or work numbers so they get messages directly.

“The focus is on improving communication, and giving parents the information they want as efficiently as possible,” Fitzsimonds said.

Miller shared other examples of ways the school is using technology.

The school has a room dedicated to Interactive Television (ITV).

Lester Prairie is one of 30 schools that belong to the network.

The room is equipped with two banks of monitors, and cameras that cover students and the instructor.

Students are able to take classes that are offered at any of the schools on the ITV system.

Students at the other schools can take classes that are offered at Lester Prairie.

“The system offers real-time interaction between sites,” Miller said.

Students can even take selected classes at Pine Technical College, Ridgewater College, and St. Cloud State University using the technology in Lester Prairie.

“We can offer just about anything here, but students need to say, ‘this is something we really want to do,’” Miller said.

He explained that it does require extra work and planning to offer this type of curriculum, so students need to let the school know what classes they are interested in taking.

Technology is even used by the sports teams.

Miller said that the football team reviews game film on Mondays, and the coaches have the ability to reproduce DVDs, and send each player home with a DVD that they can study further on their own.

Miller supports the use of technology in the school, but believes teachers and students need to demonstrate that they are using the technology they have before he will recommend new acquisitions.

“It does no good to put technology on somebody’s desk if they are not going to use it,” Miller commented.