A $30 million technology levy that Anoka-Hennepin voters approved last year is helping teachers and students master an elemental facet of learning: listening.

The first $3 million allocation from the 10-year levy went to purchase about 675 audio enhancement systems, designed to better distribute teachers' and students' voices around the classroom.

Most of the units were installed in elementary classrooms since younger children, who still are learning to listen, struggle more than older students with shutting out ambient noise, said Joel VerDuin, the district's new chief technology and information officer.

Others were installed in middle schools and high school science labs, which often are larger rooms with more activity and noise.

Each classroom is outfitted with two microphones. One hangs on a lanyard around the teacher's neck. Another can be passed among students so their voices can be heard during classroom discussions.

An amplifier gathers the sound and distributes it to a speaker array, mounted on the ceiling to distribute the sound evenly.

The levy was approved in November by Anoka-Hennepin voters at a cost of about $2.58 a month for the district's average home.

Elsewhere in the metro area, Edina and Orono are implementing new or renewed technology levies. And this November, Osseo will ask voters to approve $5 million per year for 10 years to improve access to computers and mobile devices and replace classroom equipment. The district also hopes to update its technology infrastructure.

Hearing at the same level

In Anoka-Hennepin, the decision to start with audio enhancement came out of a series of discussions with principals and school-based committees.

The system isn't new to education or the district, VerDuin said. Initially, it was used in classrooms that had students who were deaf or hard of hearing.

"A lot of those systems went in, and then it was found that every kid can benefit from this," he said. "The goal is to make sure that kids, wherever they're sitting, hear the same level of volume."

Monroe Elementary School teacher Nathan Elliott began using a similar system in his second-grade classroom last year.

"I had 29 kids in my class," Elliott said. "The room is really small and when we're all crammed in here trying to do several different things at the same time, the noise just gets louder and louder and louder. It escalates because the kids need to be heard, too."

When he started using the system, he found "it almost instantly makes the whole environment calm."

Amplification isn't the point, he said.

"It's less about amplification and more about even distribution," he said. "I can lower the volume of my voice and kind of slow it down, and it doesn't have to feel so intense. ...

"There's just a sense of focus; they don't have to strain so hard to hear, to understand what I'm saying. I end up sounding clearer to them without necessarily sounding louder."

The student microphone also has focused classroom discussions and helped shy and soft-voiced children participate.

Committees already are meeting to decide how to invest next year's allotment, VerDuin said.

In Edina, voters last year approved an increase in the district's technology levy to $45 million over 10 years. The district invested this year's $4.5 million in about 600 laptop and desktop computers, as well as personal interactive devices such as iPads and Chromebooks.

The district also is updating its Internet infrastructure, much of which is 10 years old, said Steve Buettner, director of media and technology.

The ultimate goal, Buettner said, is to address a "seismic shift in education to anytime-anywhere learning and personal learning."

Orono voters last year renewed a 10-year, $9 million technology levy. This year's $900,000 went largely to improve infrastructure to support high-tech learning for students, said Aaron Ruhland, the district's director of learning and accountability.

"Increasingly we know teaching and learning is enhanced by technological tools and resources," Ruhland said. Upgrades like server replacements are "not fancy by any means, but it's just about having storage and network capacity to do the things we need to do."

Other investments include software that allows students to access media center resources from any computer, and hardware, software and bandwidth capacity that allows for high-end engineering and technology classes.

"It's definitely not technology for technology's sake," Ruhland said. "It's the platform that's delivering teaching and learning into the future."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409