Before going one-to-one, this district is helping every kid get home wi-fi

By Bridget McCrea
February 10th, 2016


Ensuring wi-fi access at home or on the school bus is a top priority for a district still planning its one-to-one

The typical one-to-one computing initiative comes with a lengthy to-do list that includes (but isn’t limited to) mapping out vision statements, coming up with the funds to pay for the devices, selecting them, buying them, insuring them, training students and teachers how to use them effectively, and making sure wi-fi systems can handle the new burden. Add concepts like blended and flipped learning to the equation and you come up with yet another to-do list item: Make sure students can actually use their devices when they aren’t physically on campus and within wi-fi range.

Put simply, asking a fifth-grade student to watch an instructional video before the next day’s flipped classroom science lesson will fall on deaf ears if the child doesn’t have access to the internet at home. The same point can be made for the athlete who is whisked off to a game or swim meet right after school and is unable to do her homework on the bus or while sitting in the bleachers.

Little Falls Central School District in Little Falls, N.Y., wants to avoid these problems by determining how many of its students lack internet access at home and then “filling in” that gap by working with Verizon and OpenRoom to either introduce the families to their wi-fi service options (for those that can afford it) or equip pupils with 3G- or 4G-enabled devices (for those that are financially unable to pay for the service).

“Before we start handing out devices, we want to make sure that all of students are on an even playing field; our board was very intent on this,” said Leeann Dooley, K-12 assistant principal and technology coordinator at the district. “Giving students devices isn’t a good move if they can’t use them when they’re not at school.”

“Giving students devices isn’t a good move if they can’t use them when they’re not at school”

In search of equity

Equity has become a pretty important word in the K-12 sector over the last few years as schools and districts integrate more technology applications, devices, and software into the learning environment. And as classrooms have extended outside of their traditional “four walls” to include off-campus venues, homes, school buses, and even soccer games, the need for expanded equity has grown exponentially.

The ubiquitous nature of the K-12 classroom has created some significant equity issues. Consider this gap: some 99 percent of K-12 public schools and libraries in some form or fashion (thanks in large part to the E-Rate program) yet 30 percent of Americans

Intent on bridging that gap, Little Falls CSD is working with Albany, N.Y.-based, the parent company of OpenRoom, an outside advisory firm that works with schools to design and implement technology digital learning programs. “We brought them in to look at our technology and to make sure we were headed in the right direction,” said Dooley. “After they audited our systems and curriculum, we decided to expand our infrastructure and launch a sixth-grade Chromebook pilot.” The district used its own Chromebooks for this initiative, which was followed by a 10-grade pilot program with the same devices.

The audit also opened the district’s eyes to another fact: Its instructors were teaching much differently than they did ten or twenty years ago. “Our teachers are more heavily dependent on technology because they know it helps students go beyond just classroom learning,” said Emily Gibson, Little Falls CSD’s library media specialist.

“School doesn’t ‘stop’ when the 3PM bell rings,” Gibson continued. “However, we also know that when students start taking devices home to participate in blended, flipped, or project-based learning, there are going to be places where wireless capacity just doesn’t exist.”

The root problem

In some cases, a lack of internet access at home is financial in nature. In other cases, families are located in areas where wireless isn’t available. By bringing Verizon into the fold, the district has already started identifying some of the latter and figuring out innovative ways to get more households connected. According to Dooley, the district also plans to send out a detailed survey to all of its families this year, asking them whether they have access to the Internet and — if they don’t — what the root problem is.

From there, Dooley and her team will determine whether to introduce the family to Verizon and its various service plans, or to pair the student in question up with a 3G- or 4G-enabled device that runs off the Verizon network. For now, the district lends out to students (10) 4G-enabled Chromebooks that were donated by OpenRoom. “Next year we want to expand that to include more than 10 devices,” said Dooley, “for students to check out and take home.”

Student athletes, musicians, and other pupils who spend a good portion of their after-school time on the road or at events will also use those mobile devices. Dooley said the district will be able to limit the time spent on the more expensive 4G service versus, say, a home’s wi-fi network. “We want to be able to turn the device on or off,” said Dooley, “depending on whether they’re at a sporting event, on a class trip, or sitting at a desk in their own homes.”

The devices also include filters, using a Lightspeed Systems’ service, that prevent students from accessing inappropriate or unapproved content while using the devices off campus. “We want to know that the Chromebooks have the same filters that we have here,” said Gibson.

Looking ahead, Dooley and Gibson envision their district’s two pilot programs evolving into a full-blown one-to-one rollout that’s supported by 1) more households with high-speed Internet access and 2) more 3G- and 4G-enabled devices for the students whose families can’t afford wi-fi at home.

“The 10 enabled devices we’re using now seem to be working well, but at this point students are just taking them out to complete individual projects,” said Dooley. “We’re just getting off the ground and hoping to be completely one-to-one within two years.”

About the Author:

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.