What does equal access to high quality education look like? Today, the internet plays a central role. Students need online access to conduct research projects, use educational apps and access homework, while parents need to receive important communication from their school and teachers through the web. Students without reliable access to the internet face a distinct disadvantage in their education.
And yet 31.4% of families (nearly 1 in 3) earning less than $50,000 still do not have internet access at home, according to Pew Research.
For schools, this creates a serious conundrum: equity in education is no longer something confined to the resources within their walls. The so-called digital divide widens as soon as their students walk out the door. (To take a deeper dive into demographics of device ownership, check out this Pew report.)
Schools and Communities Team Up
What if we told you that a tire shop in Las Vegas was standing at the front lines of the battle to close the digital divide? In fact, local businesses and institutions are doing just that by teaming up with schools to provide internet access.
Schools are turning to their communities to leverage free wifi resources for the benefit of students. “These organizations understand that the best way to positively impact a community is to help educate the children,” says Diane Babb, Educational Consultant for MIND Research. “And it’s good for business.” Babb has helped support this type of internet initiative that’s popping up across the country.
Forsyth County Schools in Georgia launched a free wifi initiative that invited local businesses to advertise their free wifi access to students and families. The idea was simple: businesses would sign up to be listed on the district’s website as welcoming students to use their free wifi, and they would receive a sticker to put in their window announcing their membership in the program.
In the Seattle area, Kent School District deployed wifi kiosks around their community, including near public housing units, to improve access. The kiosks provide free wifi to anyone within 75 feet.
Public libraries, of course, are dependable partners in the free wifi zone movement, but tire shops, car dealerships, senior centers and juice shops are all on the list in Clark County School District, the Nevada district that includes Las Vegas. Of course, coffee shops have for years now served as free wifi hubs, but these non-traditional locations help serve a vital need, especially in neighborhoods where a Starbucks might not be on every corner.
In addition, a growing number of local internet providers are offering discounted monthly plans for families with incomes that qualify them for free and reduced price school lunches. In many cases, the plans are $10 per month. (Check out the nonprofit EveryoneOn to see options in your area.)
Step-by-Step: How to Make Free WiFi Available to Your Students
Helping your students connect to free wifi in the community doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Diane Babb, who has experience with school wifi initiatives, offers these tips:
1. Put Your Heads Together
Get your teachers and support staff together and make a list of potential local wifi partners. Start with the obvious like public libraries and recreation centers. Then move to local businesses like coffee shops, restaurants. Finally, consider the unexpected locations like some clothing stores, indoor playgrounds or other places. This is where involving your staff helps – they likely can think of a couple places that they visit that offer free wifi to customers, or make visits to businesses within a two-mile radius of the school to see if they offer free wifi.
2. Make a List and Map It
Make a list of the free wifi spots you’ve found near the school. Google Maps allows you to create and save a map that you can print out or embed on your website. Doing this not only helps your families locate the most convenient wifi spots for them, but also helps you see potential deadzones in your map. (Here’s a primer on creating your own Google Map.)
Don’t forget to include information about the local low-cost internet providers as an option for families.
3. Share the Wealth
Print out the list, put it in your school newsletter, use whatever form of communication you know is most effective with parents at your campus. Take a look at examples from these districts of how they share the information on their websites:
You can even host a technology night to help bridge the gap between the classroom technology and home use. Topics can include managing device usage at home, accessing homework and school information online, trying out some of the online learning tools students are using in school, and of course, sharing your interactive map of free wifi spots in the community.
4. Start a Conversation
Simply making a list of free wifi spots available to your community and sharing that with your families can be a pretty straightforward process. But it also provides opportunity to start a community-wide conversation – and there are some good reasons for doing so. Forsyth, Kent and Clark County all invited businesses to volunteer their locations to their community as resources for students to use. Businesses could submit their names to the district through an online form. Those that did, were listed on the district’s website and received stickers to put in their windows advertising themselves as education-friendly wifi zones. This enables unexpected partners like tire shops to emerge in the community, and can also help start a larger conversation about leveraging community resources to promote education equity. After all, doing so can elevate an entire community.
“It’s important to provide internet access,” says Babb, “and this can be one of the many benefits of building a strong relationship between local schools and community partners.”
Are you helping students connect to free wifi in your community? Tell us about it @MIND_Research!
About the Author
Christine Byrd writes about STEM and education issues for MIND Research Institute.