Jan 14 2015

Next Stop, Ubiquity? The Benefits of Wi-Fi on Wheels

More schools should consider extending the benefits of mobile learning to the bus.

The evolution of technology in education has conjured its share of promising scenarios for K–12 schools. The Internet brought talk of the connected classroom. Notebooks and tablets sparked a shift toward mobile computing, and the bring-your-own-device movement opened the possibility of a 24/7 learning environment, where new opportunities would be forever at students’ fingertips.

But while educators and technology providers in particular often gush about the promise of “anytime, anywhere” learning, the reality is that, even with the proliferation of mobile devices, technology-based education happens in predominantly two places: school and home.

But what about all the stops in between — the school bus, athletic events and extracurricular clubs or offsite field trips, for example? It would be wrong to suggest that students need technology to learn. At the same time, it’s true that expanded access to resources such as school-provided Internet service creates new opportunities for learning, especially in places where students are otherwise just killing time.

Rolling Wi-Fi

That’s the thinking in places such as Madison County, Ky., where administrators recently extended student access to school-provided Internet service by outfitting a pair of school buses with portable wireless access points.

The experiment, detailed in a 2014 report from the Center for Digital Education (CDE), essentially transformed the big yellow commuter wagons into rolling laboratories, extending the benefits of a school-managed wireless network, including Internet filtering, to students on the road. Educators in Kentucky aren’t the only ones to give Wi-Fi on school buses a go. Similar projects are under way in Colorado, Iowa and Washington, among other states.

Jacob Cecil, network administrator for the Madison County Schools, explains the district’s thinking:

“Students have a lot of downtime on field trips and athletic trips, and we wanted to provide network access for them on the bus,” he tells the CDE. The routers double as portable hotspots, providing school-filtered Internet access to students once they reach their destinations.

That’s an important feature, especially when you consider that the CDE estimates that 50 percent of students have access to an Internet-enabled smartphone or tablet.

Such stats make it easy to picture students downloading and watching flipped-classroom lectures during the ride home, or using wireless devices to look up the eating habits of silverback gorillas on a school-sponsored field trip to the zoo, for example.

Low-Risk, High Reward

As with any technology integration, installing Wi-Fi on school buses requires careful consideration. Schools must gauge how parents feel about increasing students’ access to the Internet, particularly in environments with limited supervision. Privacy and security concerns must be addressed. Bus drivers should weigh in. Does the technology create disruption or contribute to better behavior?

Once those questions are answered, however, installing the technology is rather easy. In some respects, the Wi-Fi being rolled out on school buses is similar to the technology currently offered by U.S. carmakers such as Chevrolet. In Madison, educators installed standard 4G wireless access points. The only major difference is that the school system had to extend existing network parameters, including Internet filtering settings, to the buses — a critical requirement, given rising concerns about online privacy in K–12 schools. That was accomplished with the creation of a secure VPN connection between the school and the mobile hotspots installed on the buses.

Even with expanded access to Wi-Fi, schools have a long way to go until they achieve the promise of anytime, anywhere access to educational technology. Service disruptions, spotty access to hardware and persistent networking challenges create an uneven playing field for far too many students. But installing access on buses at least has them rolling in the right direction.

Matthew Ennis Photography/ThinKStock

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