Mobile Learning

WiFi on Wheels Puts Two Districts on the Fast Track to 24/7 Access

Internet-enabled school buses keep students connected on the road, in school parking lots and in their own neighborhoods.

WiFi Buses

Coachella Valley USD Superintendent Darryl Adams shows off hardware that turns a bus into a WiFi hotspot.

School buses used to serve one purpose: getting students to and from school. But driven by a mandate to provide Internet connectivity to all students, some creative districts have deployed mobile wireless technology to transform their buses into moving WiFi zones, stationary hotspots or both.

Among the students at Coachella Valley Unified School District (CA), 24/7 Web access is not a given. According to Superintendent Darryl Adams, “Only about 60 percent of the student population has Internet access at home.” To solve the problem, he put his own spin on the concept of mobile learning. “They’re putting WiFi in cars now,” he said, “so I thought, ‘Why not put it on a school bus?’ ”

CVUSD rolled out its WiFi-enabled school bus initiative in October, using three buses to provide WiFi to students on their way back and forth to school (and for field trips and sporting events). The buses are also “parked” overnight in neighborhoods where Internet access is not otherwise available. Adams said that trailer parks and tribal reservations were among the district’s first choices as locations to provide WiFi via its buses.

The district invested in its rolling hotspots not just to allow students to work on their way to and from school, but also to level the playing field with students from more affluent homes. With nearly half of its student population unable to access the Internet while at home, Adams felt that CVUSD pupils were at a disadvantage in today’s tech-centric world. “I went in and talked to the school board about this and about how we really needed a way to get everyone connected,” Adams said. “In the 21st century, if you don’t have access to information you’re going to be at a disadvantage. Access denied is education denied.”

Limiting Access, Maintaining Power

CVUSD kicked off its WiFi initiative by equipping its three vehicles with WiFi routers that relied on the buses’ batteries for power. Students have a specific protocol installed on their laptops or mobile devices and have a username and password to log in. “If the device doesn’t match the protocol, they can’t use it,” said Adams. “This ensures that only our students can access the school buses’ WiFi system.”

It didn’t take long for CVUSD to realize that powering mobile WiFi with the buses’ batteries was not a viable solution. “The batteries lasted only about an hour and left the bus unable to start the next morning,” said Adams. “We thought about installing toggle switches or running extension cords out of the buses, but that would have incurred more costs.” The district found the solution it was looking for in solar panels. Installed on the buses, the panels provide the juice needed to keep the routers running.

When the buses are on “overnight duty,” parked in neighborhoods and on reservations where Internet access is unavailable, the WiFi is available all night, only accessible to student users who are located within about a 100-yard radius of the vehicle. “Some of the neighborhoods have a clubhouse where we can park the bus, and where students can congregate to use the service,” said Adams. 

Adams said the pilot has gone so well that the district now plans to roll out WiFi service to 97 more buses. And while all 100 buses won’t be used every night, he said the district will use a selective process of figuring out which locations will provide the most access to the largest number of students. “So far we’ve identified three or four places where there is literally no Internet connectivity,” said Adams, “and we plan to cover those areas.”

Spreading the Seeds of STEM

Rowan-Salisbury School System (NC) takes a different approach with its fleet of WiFi-enabled buses. Rather than setting out to provide Internet connectivity to students in transit, Rowan-Salisbury’s buses drive from school to school and function as pop-up classrooms at each stop.  

In 2012, using the same Aerohive wireless network access points that it uses to provide WiFi in its buildings, Rowan-Salisbury set up six “activity buses.” These are not the same buses that are used to transport children to and from school daily, but they do include a STEM bus that teacher Amy Pruitt uses to help students embrace and understand science, technology, engineering and math. The bus is equipped with mobile connectivity, interactive whiteboards, iPads and other tech tools that allow students at schools all over the district to go from “module to module” learning about STEM.

According to Candace Salmon-Hosey, executive director of technology and CTE services, maintaining mobile WiFi hasn’t always been easy. “We’ve been dealing with a loss of connectivity on the buses. As the vehicles made their way through our very large, rural district, many areas just don’t have Internet connectivity,” she said. Despite these challenges, Salmon-Hosey considered the STEM bus a success. “We’ve seen high engagement,” she pointed out, “The children and the community have embraced the initiative, which has been a success since day one.”

How (and Why) to Make it Happen

Acknowledging the fact that getting WiFi up and running on school buses required an “out-of-the-box” approach, Adams recommended that districts start, like CVUSD did, with a small pilot project. “You want to make sure that it will actually work first,” said Adams. He also advised districts to do their homework before selecting an Internet service provider, equipment, routers and power sources for the WiFi-enabled vehicles. “Don’t just take the first offer from the first vendor who claims to be able to do this for you,” said Adams. “Make them bid on it; make them compete for your business. You can get a lower price and/or better service if you just shop around.”

Ultimately, Adams said, the impetus behind the initiative should be the basic fact that, in order to be successful in school, students need connectivity — be it on a moving bus, while at school or when they’re at home. “You want your students to be able to study, learn, collaborate and communicate effectively outside of school,” said Adams. “The WiFi-enabled school buses are just one more way to ensure that actually happens.”

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