Public-private partnership transforms school bus into mobile learning lab

Melanie Agnew, an instructional coach at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, stands next to the Verizon Wireless Mobile Learning Lab.

With nearly 500,000 school buses transporting students daily in this country, one in particular stands out at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. Instead of the familiar vehicle emblazoned with bright yellow paint, this one is wrapped in bold graphics showing enthusiastic students using wireless devices to reflect what actually goes on inside this unique vehicle, known as the Mobile Learning Lab. It’s a retrofitted school bus equipped with its own generator, air conditioner, wireless 4G LTE internet connectivity, on-board tutors, and individual workstations with tablet computers and docking stations.

Eager students like Carl Harper, who just graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School, have been piling into what we’ve come to call our very own “Magic School Bus” when it pulls up every Wednesday in the school’s parking lot. Harper and about 70 of his classmates worked for the better part of the school year on board the vehicle alongside tutors from nearby Howard University on essays for their college applications and scholarship nominations.

Made possible through a partnership with Verizon Wireless and Samsung, this bus brings cutting-edge wireless technology to underserved communities in D.C. and Maryland to help students become 21st century learners. As educators, we strive to provide our students with the best educational opportunities, but we don’t always have much-needed resources. The idea of providing our students with consistent access to the latest tablets running on 4G LTE technology, and the software and apps that go along with these, is very exciting for us and for them.

Through this initiative, students receive individualized help with writing admissions essays and scholarship applications that will distinguish them within the increasingly competitive field of the college-bound. These tablets are key to helping students navigate the challenging college application process. Rather than having a stack of paper documents that can be lost or misplaced easily, all drafts and the information used to create them are stored digitally on the tablet, accessed remotely and quickly, and eMailed for review by the tutors for immediate feedback, eliminating the burden of a traditional and, at times, outdated paper method.

Howard University tutors pair up with students on board the bus each week, using 4G LTE tablets to help the students research and review examples of good college essays online, brainstorm ideas for their personal statements, and draft their own documents electronically. Working with the tutors has really instilled a culture that encourages all of our students to believe that college is attainable. The tutors are excellent role models and mentors for our students, helping them become less anxious about college and more comfortable with goal setting. It’s very empowering for our kids to develop relationships with real-life college students so they can envision themselves in that role.

The tutors also have benefitted. Michael Roy, who tutored on the bus all year, says the experience has been tremendously rewarding, giving him a better understanding of our community and helping students who didn’t believe college was within reach. Working with them in a wireless setting has been crucial, creating an environment that gives kids instant access to resources without having to lug around backpacks, books, and papers, while also preparing them to function in wireless college campuses.

Expanding our use of the technology to the classroom by trialing 4G tablets for the first time last year brought student engagement among AP U.S. History students to a whole new level, and students’ grades reflected this deeper engagement, according to teacher Bernadette Desario.

We both believe mobile devices have opened up a new world of learning, allowing students to access thousands of resources they did not have before. Through the National Archives and Gilder Lehrman Society Institute of American History, for example, Ms. Desario and her students have instant access to the U.S. Constitution, speeches from the Freedom Riders, and other content so they easily can share ideas, collaborate, and participate in online discussions. The teacher also can assess student retention of certain concepts through real-time polling and quizzes.

On a recent morning, as Ms. Desario’s class hovered over their tablets, they were discussing how the slave movement became more radical between 1815 and 1816. Some were looking at online letters from John Quincy Adams to Roger S. Baldwin about the Amistad slave revolt, while others accessed different letters. They could all view original texts, as well as more readable versions of the text alongside the original. Without the tablets, about 130 copies would have to be made for this exercise. As in many schools with limited resources, the amount of paper saved alone was tremendous.

The tablets have really increased student engagement, shifting what student engagement looks like. Without the tablets, the students are interacting with a piece of paper, and we’re focused on supporting them with reference books, writing, and conversation. The tablets bring all this together, allowing us to set the stage for collaboration using multiple sources at the same time. They’re interacting with the text; they’re interacting with whatever support structures they need to make sense of the text and also communicating with the teachers as they are learning or needing real-time feedback and assistance.

Through Edmodo, a free social teaching and learning network for schools, we can easily see what needs to be re-taught, or how homework assignments need to be realigned based on the day’s progress and challenges. For the students who are sailing through new material, it provides a platform to enrich their discussions with one another, which is sometimes logistically difficult to orchestrate in a classroom where students’ skill sets and capabilities vary.

As for Carl Harper, who’s headed to George Mason University this fall to study chemistry, he strongly believes the Mobile Learning Lab was instrumental in helping him achieve his goal of going to college. We’ve had a significant percentage of our senior class come to the Mobile Learning Lab this year, and at least 29 of our students who have worked on personal statements with the tutors have used those essays and applications to achieve acceptance at four-year colleges and universities—a very exciting transformation for us. A number of other students received scholarships and admission to two-year programs.

Partnering with Verizon Wireless not only brings today’s technology to our students. It brings student enthusiasm to a new level and shows the clear benefits of what can be achieved through strong public and private collaboration. Data show that increasing student engagement with mobile learning devices brings improved academic achievement and enhanced goal setting. But, just as important is seeing students’ excitement about learning first-hand, and hearing them exclaim in the hallway that “the Magic Bus is here today!”

When school starts back up in the fall, our juniors and seniors will get on board the Verizon Wireless Mobile Learning Lab bus to begin the application process anew. I hope to work with our students who have been participating in the Mobile Learning Lab over the summer, continuing to cultivate inspired and digitally literate learners.

Thelma Jarrett is the principal of Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C.

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