Mobile Broadband Equity Poses Challenges for Schools

Georgia's Forsyth County Schools district shares what it's doing to provide learning resources to students outside of class.

by / July 9, 2014 0
Tim Clark talks about the efforts of Forsyth County Schools in Georgia to bridge the gap for students who don't have broadband at home or on the go. Tanya Roscorla

ATLANTA — Science teacher Adam Taylor is starting a new job at Dickson County School District in Tennessee, where some students live in rural areas and experience socioeconomic distress.

As part of his learning plan, he wants high school students to participate in monthly Twitter chats with scientists and science teachers — but they need Wi-Fi to do it. 

"I knew not all of the students would have access," Taylor said.

To find out what he could do for these students, Taylor learned from the experiences that a Georgia school district shared at an ISTE session on Internet at home on July 1. 

In Forsyth County Schools (FCS), Tim Clark worked in a school district that has focused on growing its bring your own technology (BYOT) initiative for the last seven years. But when students were expected to bring a device, equity issues arose, said the district's former instructional technology coordinator.

FCS started a BYOT equity task force to talk about these equity issues, but until students began bringing their devices, it was difficult to know what all the issues would be. While most people would think of device equity first, broadband connectivity at home provided more of a complex challenge. 

"Our kids come to school with a device in their pockets, but when they go home, they don't have access," Clark said.

The task force came up with a multi-pronged strategy to deal with these equity challenges. First, schools that had Title I funding used it. Then, the district allocated its resources fairly and equitably. And fundraisers helped bridge the gap.

With the broadband challenge in particular, the instructional technology team worked with the communications staff to ask more than 400 businesses to provide free Wi-Fi access to students. United Way and parent-teacher associations also stepped up to share the idea.

Businesses that decided to participate received a sticker to put on their window that showed students it was a free Wi-Fi zone. And once a few businesses got on board, everyone else wanted the stickers, Clark said.

In rural areas, however, there weren't any businesses to go to for Wi-Fi. So the district looked for a way to increase home and on-the-go access. Since 2000, it's become normal for students in Forsyth County Schools to read teacher-posted content and participate in discussion forums on the learning management system, and they need Wi-Fi access outside of school to do their work.

The district looked at commercial service providers who had MiFi-type devices that basically provide a mobile broadband hotspot for multiple people. But the devices from the phone carriers were less cost-effective and didn't sit well with district leaders, said Jill Hobson, former director of instructional technology. Ultimately they ended up going with a 4G hotspot from Kajeet that includes filtering and reporting management options. 

At first, the district didn't put too many limits on the data used through the devices. But after seeing one device go through an astronomical amount of data, the district set a limit of 2 gigabytes per month and 100 megabytes a day, Hobson said. In communications with families, leaders stressed that the devices were not meant to be used for entertainment purposes or streaming audio and video. They were meant only to use for education purposes.

As Taylor listened to Forsyth County Schools' story, he latched onto the idea of connecting with businesses and is considering how to bring Dickson County businesses on board with a free Wi-Fi zone for students. Eventually he may look at Kajeet, but the company would need to expand beyond Sprint network coverage to Verizon in order for that to work in his area.

Someone else suggested that he write a grant so that students could access Wi-Fi and grab a hamburger at a business. He's not sure whether that is doable, but it is a powerful idea, he said. 

In the meantime, Taylor will continue exploring his options so that he can have a Wi-Fi access plan in place before the school year starts.

Your turn

How are you handling broadband equity on the go in your school district? Let us know in the comments.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.