What districts are learning about connecting kids to WiFi

New nonprofit is testing super hotspots and helping districts figure out who has internet access
By: | May 19, 2020
Newly-formed Digital Bridge initiative is guiding school leaders in the best ways to provide WiFi internet access to students for online learning.Newly-formed Digital Bridge initiative is guiding school leaders in the best ways to provide WiFi internet access to students for online learning.

School districts in the San Francisco Bay Area have launched several broadband pilots to test how well “super hotspots” provide high-speed WiFi internet access so all students can participate in online learning.

The newly-formed Digital Bridge initiative is also providing a playbook that school district leaders can follow to determine which students lack internet access and best practices for distributing laptops, WiFi hotspots and other essential devices.

The nonprofit offers several resources on its website for school administrators working to connect students.

“Some school districts have made a lot of progress,” says Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, the nonprofit that created Digital Bridge after spending the last several years connecting to schools to high-speed broadband. “But there’s still work school districts are going to have to do over the summer to make sure they’re ready for fall.”

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San Francisco USD and other nearby districts are partnering with Digital Bridge to test the best locations for the super hotspots, which can connect several dozen users at a time.

Placing hotspots where people can gather, such as in a school or community center parking lot, provides the strongest signal.

Schools are installing the devices on their buildings or placing them on buses that can bring the hotspots to other central locations in a community,  Marwell says.

In one district, a local auto dealership volunteered to put the hotspot in its cars and drive them to various spots for students to connect.

On the other hand, when hotspots are placed on the roofs housing complexes, the network has not been able to penetrate into individual apartments, he adds.

Why WiFi access surveys don’t work so well

Digital Bridge’s second pilot program, which is focused on data, has already determined that simply surveying families about their access to the internet isn’t particularly effective, Marwell says.

“The problem is often a very poor response rate, plus families don’t always know what they have,” Marwell says.

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Digital Bridge’s three-tiered approach begins with “speed tests” that can test the strength of a home’s internet signal.

Next, the nonprofit will guide districts in collecting data, such as which students have and haven’t logged into online classes.

Then, districts have to use all forms of communication—from phone calls to social media—to contact families to determine their ed-tech needs.

“Even once you get the data on which kids don’t have access, school district need help visualizing where these kids are,” Marwell says. “We’ve been building a mapping tool in with a couple of districts to allow them to see where kids are located and what internet sources are available.”

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