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7 Ways Schools Bridge the Distance Learning Digital Divide

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Schools have handed out millions of devices since the beginning of the pandemic. But devices are only one side of the remote learning equation. Even if they’re given a learning device, many students still face barriers to connectivity. Unicef reports that worldwide, at least 463 million students have no access to digital or broadcast lessons. Innovative educators and community partners are hard at work to improve that statistic and ensure no child misses out on learning. From Wi-Fi-enabled school buses in California to SIM-enabled internet dongles in Victoria, check out these seven strategies schools have implemented to bridge the distance learning digital divide.

1. School Bus Wi-Fi Helps Students Get to Class

For several years now, districts have been equipping school buses with Wi-Fi so students can complete online assignments while traveling to and from school. Why let the vital internet access provided by these portable hotspots go to waste during school closures? Districts are now re-purposing their Wi-Fi buses to help students “get to class” in places where connectivity is an issue. Buses park where internet connections are needed most, such as local neighborhoods and community center parking lots.

Read how Coachella Valley Unified School District in California has been providing connectivity in this way to the district’s most underserved communities, long before the transition to remote learning.

2. Tech Team Cranks it Up to Boost School Wi-Fi

When schools across the Charleston County School District closed in April, the tech team sprang into action to help the roughly 4,000 kids without internet at home. Thomas Nawrocki, executive director of IT, explains to U.S. News how to boost connectivity with existing infrastructure. “Nawrocki and his team cranked the WiFi output signal inside schools so that those living in close proximity can use it, and also so that people can drive or bike to the school parking lots and tap into it there. The district also has 10 schools with powerful antennas that are helping provide access to the internet to neighborhoods in the immediate area.”

Other schools use their closed campuses to get devices in teachers' and students' hands safely. By rolling a FUYL Tower out to a publicly-accessible location on a school site or district office, devices can be left securely in a designated locker, ready for no-contact pickup during a scheduled time. These locations can even be a covered area outdoors, so no building access is necessary.

3. Companies Provide Take-home Hotspots for Greater Equity for Students

Take-home hotspots are a popular solution because they don’t require installation and help close the connectivity gap to give students the technology to succeed. Thanks to generous donations from companies and philanthropies, hundreds of thousands have been distributed to kids in recent months. In Washington, Northshore School District was one of the first to switch to what they call “classroom in the cloud.” EdSurge reports that “before putting its emergency instruction on hold, Northshore had already distributed 4,000 devices and around 600 mobile hotspots to families.”

Partnering with school districts across the country, T-Mobile has launched a program to deliver internet connectivity to millions of underserved student households at no cost to them. Interested schools or school districts can fill out a program request form.

4. An Unexpected Tool for Remote Learning—Public Television

Public TV and radio have emerged as unexpected remote learning tools to prevent the education gap from getting wider. According to UNICEF, TV-based remote learning has the potential to reach the majority of students globally. World Bank’s Edtech team documented initiatives in Austria, where the public T.V. station ORF 1 has offered a special education program for students at all school levels. Similarly, Spanish public television, RTVE, launched an educational tool for students and families called Educlan. In Mexico, the government has “planned to have 640 programs, across 18 radio stations in 15 states of the country.”

5. “Lift Zones” Provide Safe Spaces for Low-Income Students

Working with a network of nonprofit partners, Comcast is launching more than 1,000 WiFi-connected “Lift Zones” in community centers throughout the U.S. to provide safe spaces for low-income students to participate in distance learning. “The initiative will provide not only free Internet connectivity, but also access to hundreds of hours of educational and digital skills content to help families and site coordinators navigate online learning.”

Distance learning is impossible without access to power. Deploying LocknCharge FUYL Towers in community centers is a creative way to provide secure charging for students facing housing insecurity. When an IT team member assigns individual FUYL Tower slots to students, the district can be assured that the students have a designated place to keep their devices safe and secure while charging.  

6. 4G Wireless Routers Distributed to Children Facing Disruption to Face-to-Face Education

When schools closed during the initial lockdown in England, the Department of Education realized it was essential to recognize how many families lack up-to-date computers and struggle to pay for broadband. “Being able to keep up with classes should not depend on broadband status,” said one educational expert to the BBC. To date, over 100,000 laptops and tablets have been delivered and 51,000 4G routers to secondary school pupils with a social worker as well as disadvantaged students.

7. Internet Dongles Prevent Students from Falling Behind

Internet dongles use a SIM card to generate a portable WiFi network. Because they’re small, easy to use and affordable, it’s understandable that they’re a popular choice to try to ensure equal access to online learning. “Only 68% of Australian children aged 5 to 14 living in disadvantaged communities have internet access at home, compared to 91% of students living in advantaged communities,” reports The Conversation. To prevent students in bushfire affected areas and families who can’t afford an internet connection from falling behind, Australia’s Victorian government has distributed thousands of Telstra internet dongles.

The only certainty about the future of education is that it’s uncertain. The trick is to be ready for whatever scenario comes your way—including developing an EdTech plan that empowers students and teachers to focus on the task of learning. Learn how best to navigate educational technology in an ever-changing landscape.

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