Wi-Fi-enabled bus programs have the potential to improve K–12 student success by extending their learning time, but the road to implementing one of these programs can be complex.
Two years ago, Google and the Consortium for School Networking launched a pilot connected school bus program, Rolling Study Halls, after districts voiced interest in helping rural students use their long bus rides effectively toward their education.
“What we are really trying to do with Rolling Study Halls is to extend learning time,” said Alex Sanchez, a senior analyst for public policy and government affairs at Google, in a Jan. 29 session at the Future of Education Technology Conference. “Students can work with educators on board and get help on projects they may be having issues with.”
How to Bring Connected Buses to Your School
In the two years since the program started, Sanchez and Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer for CoSN, have identified best practices for creating a connected bus program from start to finish.
- Establish the ‘why’: The first step to a successful connected bus program, or any technology integration, is to outline key goals. Gather administrators, IT leaders, teachers and parents to discuss school community needs. “The districts that have had the most success with this program have been the ones with a very clear vision of what they want this program to do,” said Sanchez.
- Bring leadership on board: The importance of getting support from decision-makers like the superintendent, school board, transportation director and chief financial officer cannot be understated, said Bearden. There will inevitably be some implementation barriers, and having leaders in your corner can help overcome some of those obstacles.
- Work with the transportation department: Before they can equip their buses with internet access, schools need to know whether they have access to those buses in the first place. If schools plan to use routers with external antennas, for example, they will need to know whether schools lease their buses or own them before making any physical alterations. If a bus route goes through geographic locations with limited or no connectivity, schools will need to work with their vendors to find a solution, like hard-wiring the bus, to keep students connected. The transportation department will also have to prepare bus drivers for this transition, including training them on any equipment that may malfunction during a ride.
- Consider content filtering and data usage: If students are surfing the internet, it is important to ensure buses are equipped with proper content filtering software to keep students safe. Talk with vendors about whether they have content filtering solutions built into their routers, if schools will need to provide solutions themselves or if students will have filtering software on their own devices, said Bearden. Schools may also want to think about filtering data usage to keep students from plowing through data while visiting streaming sites or updating software while on the bus.
- Understand what devices students will use: Establishing whether students will be using school-owned devices or their own can help schools have more control over data usage and security issues. Allowing only school-owned devices can limit the chances of students overusing data on application downloads and finding ways to work around filtering software to access blocked sites on the bus, said Bearden. Providing devices can also mitigate equity issues for students who may not have their own personal devices.
- Gather Funding: Once a use case has been established, leadership is on board and the important questions have been answered, schools can begin to work on finding the funding to support connected buses, said Bearden. Currently, E-Rate does not cover connected bus programs. However, schools can work with their chief financial officers to find grant funding opportunities, said Sanchez.
- Consider multiple uses for connected buses: While schools may want to establish a connected bus primarily for longer commutes, coming up with other ways to use Wi-Fi on buses can be helpful when looking for funding, said Bearden. For example, schools can bring Wi-Fi-enabled buses to low-income areas where internet accessibility is low so students can connect after-hours. Transportation departments may also find Wi-Fi on buses useful for vehicle GPS tracking and security camera deployment.
- Find educators for bus supervision: To get the most out of a connected bus program, it is important to have teachers riding on the bus with students to provide homework help, said Bearden. When looking for bus tutors, an important factor to consider is motion sickness, said Sanchez. Some schools have avoided this issue by connecting teachers virtually.
- Pilot the program first: Start small, said Bearden. There are bound to be issues during the initial phases of a connected bus program. Outfitting one bus instead of an entire fleet can help work out these issues before investing crucial time and resources.
- Market the program to stakeholders: It is important to have clear communication with parents and teachers about the goals behind a connected bus program. Having open channels of dialogue can help allay any concerns that may arise around added screen time, said Bearden.