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School Districts Using Mobile Hotspots to Help Students Connect at Home

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By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

Mobile hotspots are helping several school districts bridge the technology gap faced by students who lack home Internet access.

The Green Bay school district, in Wisconsin, recently announced the launch of a pilot program developed by Kajeet to establish hotspots to help students connect to the Web away from school.  In addition to being given school-issued Chromebooks, students in grades 6 to 12 will be able to take home a SmartSpot device that will provide Internet access to up to 10 devices within a range of 50 to 100 feet.

Schools around the country face increasing demands to provide students with reliable Internet connectivity, both in school and away from it, with the growth in implementation of 1-to-1 and bring-your-own-device programs, and with the overall increase in students' technology usage. Kajeet's SmartSpot mobile hotspot is also being used in other school districts around the country that are loaning them to students, the company says.  

"This gives teachers an opportunity to enhance their lessons and not hold back on assignments because some students may not have Internet access at home," said Diane Doersch, chief technology and information officer for the Green Bay schools, in a statement. She said they are currently in the process of gathering names of students in need of devices so that they can be distributed on a checkout basis.

Schools in Detroit, Miami-Dade County, Fla., Fairfax County, Va.,Tucson, Ariz. and Forsyth County, Ga. all actively have programs using the Kajeet mobile hotspots.

In Forsyth County, where 20 percent of the district's 40,000 students are economically disadvantaged, the district began issuing the SmartSpot devices in September 2013, five years after launching a bring-your-own-technology project. All of the district's schools are participating in the program, and 46 percent of classrooms are using computing devices regularly for instruction. In the article Bringing Blended Models Home No Easy Task it's reported that 80 percent of households are connected to the Internet but children from minority households often lag behind their peers with only 58 percent with connectivity.

"We are very, very pleased with the access it has given families in our school district," said Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology for the Forsyth system, in an interview. In launching its bring-your-own-device program, the district was determined to make sure that technology was distributed equitably, she said, and the hotspots have helped.

Forsyth County asked for the 35 schools in their district to apply for the devices. Currently there are 75 devices dispersed among 10 of their schools. The first set of devices were purchased from money raised through tours staged by the district to explain how their technology efforts work. Hobson said they just received additional funding to purchase approximately 80 more SmartSpots from a community grant.

Kajeet is a prepaid wireless service provider that is specifically designed for children and teenagers. The company's SmartSpot device is a portable, palm-sized Wi-Fi transmitter that connects to 3G and 4G networks using Kajeet's wireless service. Each school is given the web console Sentinel to manage the devices and get detailed reports.

SmartSpots cost $140 per device and data plan prices vary per contract, depending on the bandwidth needs of the school district. Once the school district pays for a set amount of bandwidth they are entitled to the use of it regardless of the time frame.

Plans are not available on a monthly basis, but according to Michael Flood, vice president of education markets for Kajeet, the average data plan ranges $15 to $20 a month per device.  Each hotspot comes with a padded carrying case and lost devices can be tracked by GPS and disabled if needed. Schools can also control students' access to websites and set limits on bandwidth usage.

In Forsyth county, SmartSpots are given out with contracts that must be signed by both students and parents. The contract length varies per student and the device is covered by the school as long as its use meets those in the acceptable use agreement. 

"We've learned that contracts work," Hobson said. They hold "the student and parents accountable and the families take it seriously."

The need to improve the speed and reliability of schools' Internet access has received considerable attention this year from policymakers at all levels, including President Obama. Obama last year called for broad changes in the federal E-rate program, which supports technology in school and libraries, and the Federal Communications Commission recently outlined a series of steps it will take to increase school broadband access.

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