As technology continues to shape public school classrooms across America and transform the ways students learn and interact, it is critical that all students have the access they need to the tools that allow them to be full participants in this new world of learning.
It’s not just about using computers as part of the instructional process, it’s also about teachers using technology platforms that allow them to communicate with students and parents, make and receive assignments, and more. A student left out of that can be at a real disadvantage, becoming a victim of what is known as the “homework gap.”
The question, then, is how public schools can help meet the needs of all students, leaving no one out of the learning process just because they lack the technology and the ability to stay connected. Schools have developed many ways to address this, but increasingly find that the best solution is the one that ensures each student has all the computing power and connectivity required to stand on an equal footing in the educational process.
One method used by some public schools is to work with organizations, public and private, in the local community to identify places where students can take advantage of “homework hot spots” in the afternoons, evenings, and on weekends.
This is an option for students with a device such as a laptop computer or tablet, but who lack access to the internet at home. It involves locations such as public libraries, non-profit organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, or even private businesses such as fast-food restaurants and coffee shops.
There are obstacles with this approach. One is that many of these locations might not be open during the hours when students do their homework. Some students simply can’t start on their schoolwork until late at night, due to their responsibilities for taking care of younger siblings while their parents or guardians are at work.
Another is that not all private businesses are enthused to see large numbers of school-age non-customers coming in and taking up space that might otherwise be used for paying customers. They may offer free Wi-Fi, but intend it for customers, not entirely as a public service.
Some school districts provide Wi-Fi on school buses, so students have the opportunity to do some of their schoolwork in the morning or afternoon. And for students going to after-school athletic events or other post-school activities, this can be a helpful service.
One California school district took it even further, turning school buses not just into morning and evening hotspots, but purposely parking buses near residential areas where large number of students were known to be without internet connectivity. The students could then have Wi-Fi access almost all the time.
It was a well-intended effort, but it eventually had to be discontinued due to a variety of reasons, such as a lack of power sources to keep the Wi-Fi going for such long periods while the buses were parked.
Yet another option for some ambitious cities has been to implement a municipal, city-wide Wi-Fi network as part of a public-private partnership. Setting up a network like this is a major undertaking, and as a result few cities offer it.
The Chromebook solution
The ideal option is one that fills both connectivity and device needs, such as the connected Chromebook program in place at many public schools. Students without either a convenient computer or access to an internet connection get both at the same time.
The Chromebook combines the functionality of a traditional laptop with cloud-based computing, and its connectivity is via the cellular network, making at-home internet access or the search for Wi-Fi unnecessary. Some or all of the students – depending on the needs of the community the public school district serves – get a computer that they can use throughout the school day, at home, on the bus, or elsewhere.
The computer has an always-on, high-speed internet connection, giving students the access they need to school email, online school portals and resource hubs, and of course the internet. With these computers, the educational playing field is leveled, giving less-advantaged students the opportunity to access the same resources and use the same tools as any other student.
Online access is filtered and can be managed by the school district, limiting what students can reach via the internet, and keeping the computer used more for its intended purposes. The Chromebooks are designed to run only secure web-based apps, making them less vulnerable to malware. And they include the ability to filter out inappropriate web sites and other content.
A side benefit to equipping the student with a computer and connectivity is that having the computer in the home can provide benefits to the entire family. Once a student completes his or her homework, the computer can be available to parents and siblings who may use it as a learning tool themselves, perhaps taking online courses in the evenings, or applying for jobs online.