When Howard-Suamico School District went digital, giving every student in grades 3 and up tablets or laptops, the change was immediate and dramatic.
Teachers were transforming their instruction. Students were excited about learning.
Something else that was immediate and dramatic: the gap between students who had Internet access at home, and those who didn’t.
“What you find out very quickly as teachers is not just the power of using technology in the classroom, but the power to extend learning, to carry it beyond just the school day,” says Brian Nicol, communications coordinator and, until recently, a teacher at the Wisconsin school district.
“That’s when you realize that all of a sudden you’re being exclusive. That’s where it really exacerbates the divide.”
The suburban district is perceived by some as well-to-do, Nicol says, but he estimates that in any given year, roughly 15 percent of students don’t have Internet access outside of school.
And those students, Nicol and others teachers realized, were at a real disadvantage.
“If you didn’t have Internet access outside of school, you could learn in my class, but boy would it be at a different pace and rate and difficulty,” he says. “You can’t just send them home with an assignment or some research to do, because they have no access.”
That’s about to change, though.
In December, the district won a $15,000 grant from Cellcom, a local cellphone company. The funds will go toward purchasing MiFi devices, which provide mobile broadband access, so that 15 percent can connect at home for free.
Howard-Suamico’s situation is not unique. As learning becomes increasingly connected, many districts are struggling to serve students who are disconnected at home. The following three resources can help students and families realize the powering of digital learning at home.
1. Connect2Compete: This program from EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit working to close the digital divide, provides low-cost Internet service to families who have at least one child who qualifies for free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Families must meet other criteria as well, such as no outstanding bills or existing Internet service.
Through Connect2Compete, qualifying families can get Internet service for as low as $9.95 per month, with no contract, deposit, or installation fees.
2. Learning On-the-Go: Part of the federal E-rate program, Learning On-the-Go is a pilot program that helps schools fund wireless Internet connectivity for mobile learning devices such as tablets, Chromebooks, or laptops.
Piedmont City School District, a small rural district in Alabama, used Learning On-the-Go funds to build a wireless network that covered the entire town, providing students and families with free Internet access at home.
And, Riverside Unified School District in California used funds from the program to purchase mobile learning devices equipped with 4G data connectivity so students could stay connected.
3. Local and regional providers: A grant from a local cell phone carrier is helping Howard-Suamico close the digital learning gap in its community. Several other companies are working to do the same in their region, either through grants and partnerships with schools or low-cost plans for families.
One example is Midcontinent Communications, which provides low-cost broadband and free wireless modems to qualifying families in Minnesota, as well as in North and South Dakota.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has a list of cable companies that provide discounted service to low-income households. Families can also go to EveryoneOn to search for discounted service based on their zip code.
Know of other grants and programs that help keep students connected at home? Share them in the comments.
Together we can help ensure digital learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom.