Aug 15 2019

Is a Backpack the Key to Closing the Homework Gap?

Tech companies and K–12 school leaders are turning to next-generation IoT devices to increase home internet access for students.

Millions of students lack the ability to access the internet from home — a problem compounded by increasing expectations from educators that students do so to complete homework and research. 

Innovations in next-generation Internet of Things applications are helping to reduce those disparities, which characterize what’s known as the homework gap. 

Imcon International and Cradlepoint have created a line of self-contained, Wi-Fi-enabled backpacks, powered by a solar charger and redundant batteries, that provide portable internet access by allowing students to connect to wireless, 3G, 4G, LTE and other networks using an open-source distributed edgeware system. 

Kajeet’s ConnectEdNow campaign, announced in June, aims to make broadband access more affordable by providing students with portable Wi-Fi hotspot devices, a $200 mobile device subsidy and discounted data plans from Verizon, T-Mobile and other LTE providers.

Working with cable and wireless ISPs, the nonprofit organization EveryoneOn is sponsoring Connect2Compete, a program to furnish affordable internet service — typically priced between $10 to $20 per month — to qualifying low-income households containing K–12 students. 

Sprint’s 1Million Project Foundation provided both access and devices — free smartphones, tablets and hotspots, in addition to three gigabytes of high-speed LTE data per month — to students with an economic need in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Texas, California, and other areas as part of its initiative to provide the digital tools and connectivity nearly 1 million economically disadvantaged high school students across the country need to succeed in school.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Find out how one-to-one computing programs are boosting digital equity for K–12 students.

Schools are Dealing with a Widening Homework Gap

Incorporating internet use into learning can provide numerous benefits, including increased collaboration, access to additional informational resources and remote learning capabilities. 

Approximately 71 percent of K–12 teachers allowed students to use the internet to research subjects in class, according to a 2017 University of Phoenix survey.

Seventy percent of U.S. teachers also assigned internet-based homework last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

But the growing reliance on students logging on outside of their schools’ walls can be problematic. Fourteen percent of children ages 3 to 18 lack home internet access, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Broadband access still is limited in some rural areas.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read about how K–12 schools are addressing digital equity with curriculum framework.

Opportunities to Log On Can Come from Outside the Home

In some districts, schools have partnered with surrounding communities to help students access the internet outside of class.

Forsyth County Schools and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce in Georgia compiled a list of businesses and organizations in the area offering free Wi-Fi hotspots where students are able to work, reports the Forsyth County News

In Washington, the Kent School District installed Wi-Fi kiosks in local public housing developments, which serve as hotspots for devices that are distributed to students as part of the school’s one-to-one initiative.

To provide students with additional time to complete internet-based homework assignments, a number of schools have outfitted buses with Wi-Fi access.

Early results from pilots Google conducted of its Rolling Study Halls program, which supplies school buses in North Carolina and South Carolina with mobile Wi-Fi routers and an onboard educator to help with assignments, suggest providing internet access during the school commute can result in reading and math proficiency and digital fluency gains.

In addition to extra homework time, offering Wi-Fi during students’ rides might also provide some secondary benefits. Kajeet, which produces a Wi-Fi-enabled smart school bus, says a school district in Missouri that piloted a six-month Wi-Fi access program saw a 45 percent decrease in bus-related disciplinary referrals.

Schools’ wireless bus efforts may soon be backed by governmental support. In March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill, currently under committee review, to reimburse school districts who incorporate Wi-Fi access on school buses through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program.

In the meantime, school IT professionals and leadership will likely need to prioritize which buses would benefit most from Wi-Fi, such as ones with lengthy routes, or focus on reducing the homework gap in other ways — by utilizing high-tech backpacks, subsidized hotspot devices, reduced-cost connectivity options or other available solutions.

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