Jan 11 2021

Stronger Together: How Collaboration Leads to Better Remote Learning Outcomes

Schools and districts are partnering with governments and businesses to ensure that students and their families have reliable Wi-Fi for learning.

With the rush to virtual schooling, districts nationwide have been looking for ways to expand student connectivity. Officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., called in the cavalry to help.

The School District of Palm Beach County is driving the creation of a civic Wi-Fi mesh network that will bring broadband to some 25,000 students. To make it happen, district leaders are working in partnership with local government, nonprofits, vendors and other stakeholders.

“Those partnerships are key to making this possible,” says Mark Howard, chief of performance accountability for the district.

Palm Beach is not alone. Experts say a collaborative effort can be a game changer for schools looking to ensure connectivity in rural and underserved communities.

“Those kinds of arrangements can be wonderful,” says Amy McLaughlin, project director for CoSN’s Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) Initiative. “We have seen examples where there are nonprofit or government partners helping to get broadband into people’s homes. Where communities have determined that everyone should have access to the internet, that can be a great opportunity for school districts to give students access to strong connectivity.”

Civic Partnerships Focus on Resolving Families’ Wi-Fi Needs

Officials had begun the work to build a civic mesh network in Palm Beach County years ago — an effort that had fallen by the wayside until the urgent need sparked by the coronavirus pandemic put the project back on the table.

“One of our key partnerships is with the board of county commissioners, along with our school board. Both have made this a priority and are providing complimentary services and dollars to help build this solution,” Howard says.

Mark Howard, Chief of Performance Accountability, The School District of Palm Beach County
A lot of people in the community wanted to help, and so we looked for a model where they could all contribute and be a part of this.

Mark Howard Chief of Performance Accountability, The School District of Palm Beach County

In March, the county set aside $10 million out of its $260 million CARES Act funding, and it has since devoted an additional $10 million to the project.

“You have to put these Wi-Fi radios in sufficient density and up high enough to provide a strong-enough signal,” Howard says. The extra funding will support installation of county-owned utility poles rigged with Ubiquiti AC Mesh Pro, “and they had the foresight to equip those with solar, so there is no recurring electrical cost to any of the municipalities.”

A nonprofit partner, the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County, is raising the funds for TP-Link Wi-Fi extenders needed to get the signal into students’ homes.

“Once the county has the Wi-Fi available in the air, we want to be sure that each family can connect to that network,” Howard says.

A district survey in March revealed at least 15,000 families in need to internet support, and a range of players stepped up to assist, from United Way to the local business development board. “A lot of people in the community wanted to help, and so we looked for a model where they could all contribute and be a part of this,” Howard says.

Businesses Step Up to Make Wi-Fi More Affordable

Experts say such all-hands-on-deck approaches could help school districts to ensure connectivity in rural areas where cellular coverage may be spotty, as well as among families who may not have the financial resources to support at-home internet.

“Universal access to broadband internet is a critical goal,” says David Edwards, general secretary of the global teachers’ union Education International. “Quality online education is the result of a lot of planning and design and purposeful collaboration.”

In DeKalb County, Ga., where students attend remote classes full time, the school district scrambled to meet the immediate need by working in close cooperation with T-Mobile to deploy portable hotspots to families that required broadband access.

“We have provided over 2,300 households with mobile hotspots, each of which can accommodate up to 10 devices,” says DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris.

“T-Mobile has a special rate where they provide the devices at a reduced cost for school departments, and that is essential,” she says. “None of us planned for this or for the budget implications. These are things we couldn’t have predicted, and we are trying hard to work with partners to remove as many barriers as possible for our scholars.”

Oklahoma City Public Schools have taken a similar approach, according to Eric Hileman, the district’s executive director for IT services and board chair of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. He has worked to deploy hotspots with support from OneNet, the state network managed by the State Regents for Higher Education in tandem with Verizon, which is providing discounted rates for the expanded broadband footprint.

“It’s absolutely important to have those collaborative partnerships. No one entity can do this alone,” Hileman says. “There needs to be that shared ‘it takes a village’ mentality, with all the partners working together in a concerted effort.”

In DeKalb County, the partnership approach is driving not just the short-term response, but also the district’s longer-range planning.

“We are working with our elected officials to develop an internet access policy for all students,” Watson-Harris says. “Right now, everyone is still in reactive mode, but that would be our ultimate dream for the longer term, and we have had incredible support from our community leaders. They sincerely want to be a part of the solution.”

District Teams Collaborate on Innovative Wi-Fi Solutions

In addition to teaming up with government, nonprofits and vendor partners, some districts are forging novel internal alliances in support of wider student connectivity. At Louisa County Public Schools in Virginia, that has taken the form of a “wireless on wheels” initiative.

The concept is simple: A 4-by-6-foot utility trailer is fitted with solar panels, a charge controller for measuring battery capacity, and an inverter for converting power from DC to AC. There’s an LTE modem from NETGEAR connected to Verizon and T-Mobile towers, and a TP-Link wireless router to broadcast the Wi-Fi signal. The county has deployed more than 30 of these Wi-Fi stations in support of students with limited network access.

“This grew out of a collaborative effort of the teams within our school division,” Technology Director David Childress says. “That included my entire cabinet: our elementary education director, our secondary education director, our finance director, our assistant superintendent for administration and others.”

50%

The percentage of U.S. teachers who estimate that “all or nearly all” of their students had access to the internet at home.

Source: RAND, “The Digital Divide and COVID-19,” September 2020

This has been “a total team effort,” he says. “We needed to make sure we were looking at every angle on this problem. We needed to conquer this in a rural community with limited access to broadband internet, and we needed the entire team to come to the table and talk about it.”

Childress, along with the director of STEAM and innovation, built the first prototype. The district has since expanded the partnership to include the students themselves, with high school career and technical education students building subsequent Wi-Fi stations.

“It gives the students a practical and hands-on experience,” Childress says, “and it gives them an opportunity to give back to the community by providing a much-needed service.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Closing the connectivity gap with expanded, optimized networks.

Illustration by Taylor Callery