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Anoka-Hennepin schools are using a $170,000 federal grant to make the sprawling district's world a lot smaller.

The grant is financing a still-expanding video and audio conferencing system that allows students, teachers and administrators to meet and study together, no matter where they are.

Patrick Plant, district chief technology and information officer, said the new computer Web service can allow groups to get in touch via e-mail, Internet, cell phone, regular phone, or television monitor. That, Plant said, will make it much easier for teachers in far-flung schools to hold conferences, for Superintendent Dennis Carlson to deliver important messages to the entire district and field questions from anyone who's plugged in, and for students in an entire school to invite an author or scientist more than 1,000 miles away into their classrooms.

The system, called WebEx and licensed from Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., can also be used to expand district course offerings.

"A college teacher might come over to teach economics," Plant said. "Now, we can bring a teacher in without those teachers having to leave their campuses." District officials are also hoping they can use the new system to tap into resources available in other Twin Cities schools.

"There might be courses we want to offer, but the costs are too prohibitive for us to be able to do that," Plant said. "Through a mechanism like this our students would be able to participate in taking courses collaboratively with another school district."

The system has primarily been used by businesses in the past, and schools only recently started using it, Plant said. Anoka-Hennepin's grant, which lasts two years and started in March, covers the licensing fees and teacher training.

'Like having her there'

Plant said the system kicked in last spring and was immediately put to use. At Oak View Middle School in Andover, the entire school decided to read the historical novel "Black Duck" as a community effort. Using the WebEx system, the school was able to contact author Janet Lisle in Rhode Island, see her and talk to her over four classroom computers, and watch her make a presentation about the writing of the book. In other classrooms, students could follow the session on television sets.

"Basically, it was like having her there in the school," Plant said. "The kids were actually taking photos of it on their cell phones because they thought it was such an exciting event."

The district plans to expand use of WebEx this year. Plant said it could prove especially useful for sharing information about courses -- such as French IV, for instance -- where there might be only one instructor per high school and the teachers don't want to keep having to drive somewhere to compare notes. It could also cut down on mileage for conferences involving principals and other administrators.

As enthused as the district is about the system, the grant money runs out in two years. What happens then?

Plant said the district would first have to evaluate how effective the system proves. Then, the district, which is facing a potential budget shortfall of $18 million for the 2010-11 school year, would have to determine whether there's money available to keep it going. Part of any cost analysis would involve how much the system saves in terms of textbooks, mileage, and even classroom space, he said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547