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Lending Libraries for Mobile Hotspots, Backed With Philanthropic Funding

Students' lack of Internet access at home has become a major source of angst among many school leaders and technology advocates. The reason is clear: It's difficult to promote tech-based learning in school, and extend those lessons to home environments, if students lose Web access as soon as they leave their K-12 campuses.

Now, a foundation is supporting plans to use public library systems in a way that could fill in at least some of those gaps. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will award $900,000 to public library systems in New York City and Chicago, part of a larger pool of innovation grants worth nearly $3.5 million, to allow disadvantaged families and individuals to borrow portable Wi-Fi hotspots and take them home.

The New York City Public Library's pilot project will allow families to borrow mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices for up to a year, with the goal of reaching 10,000 households. The program, which will receive $500,000 and will be run in the library's 92 branches, is targeting users whose current access to the Internet is limited to 40 minutes a day.

The Chicago program, which will receive $400,000, has a much smaller window for borrowing—devices will be available for three-week loans, though the goal is to hone the loaning model and expand it over time. The Chicago program will also make laptops and tablets available, the Knight foundation said.

In both cases, the loaning of equipment will be coupled with training meant to increase borrowers' overall digital literacy and Internet skill.

School districts have taken a variety of approaches in trying to extend students' Web access beyond school. Districts in Wisconsin, Georgia, and other states have forged partnerships with private companies that put mobile hotspots in students' homes and communities. Other districts are trying to expand tech access by giving students access to connected school buildings after hours, and on weekends.

Michael Maness, the Knight Foundation's vice president of journalism and media innovation, says that the philanthropy's hope is that the programs in Chicago and New York will foster experimentation with Wi-Fi access and move toward giving more families much broader, full-time Web connectivity than even the initial efforts can provide.

"When you think about it, libraries have deep repositories of knowledge, and people to help you" navigate that information, Maness told Education Week. "We think this is a novel way of rethinking the role that libraries have."

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