Equity & Diversity

Buses as Tech Hubs: Way More Than Just Wi-Fi

By Michelle Goldchain — June 21, 2019 6 min read
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When students in a San Francisco neighborhood were afraid to walk to a community learning center because of the threat of gang violence, an effort was made to bring the learning to them—by bus.

A nonprofit called Five Keys arranged to have a vehicle loaded with Wi-Fi, as well as other tech tools that students can use to meet a variety of academic needs, roll into impoverished communities throughout the city.

The idea of delivering internet connectivity to students and communities via buses is not new. But over the past few years, the scale of those efforts has increased as the mobile tech hubs have been transformed—gutted, reconfigured, and reimagined—so that they provide students with a much broader array of tech access and services than just internet connectivity.

The buses delivered by organizations like Five Keys are staffed with educators who provide academic support for students in different subjects. In some cases, the buses offer full-fledged computer laps where students can prep for the SAT or take part in anti-bullying programs. Some of them come with desks and swivel chairs.

School districts and other organizations see the buses as one of many options for closing the so-called “homework gap": the inability of students, especially those from poor backgrounds, to access reliable internet service away from school. Those barriers to connectivity prevent many students from doing online work away from school, at a time when lessons are increasingly being delivered via technology.

A report released by Common Sense Media in 2015 found that approximately 70 percent of teachers in the U.S. assign homework that requires access to broadband.

The lack of connectivity stymies students in districts of all sizes. A survey published this year by the ACT found that rural students were almost twice as likely as non-rural students to describe the internet access in their home as “unpredictable.” Twenty-four percent of rural students surveyed said they only have one device at home, compared to 11 percent of students in non-rural areas.

Communities in California, Arizona, and Arkansas have backed efforts to install routers on school buses to help students stay connected during their commutes to and from school. In some of those programs, students are even provided with laptops or tablets en route to complete their homework.

Recapturing Learning Time

One effort that is focused on promoting mobile learning is the Rolling Study Halls initiative, backed by Google.

Since it was launched in April 2018, the initiative has offered thousands of students, located in 16 districts in 12 states, access to Wi-Fi and Chromebooks during their bus rides. The efforts are sponsored in partnership with the Consortium for School Networking, an organization representing K-12 technology officials.

On each bus provided by the program, students are given access to Chromebooks and Wi-Fi as well as an onboard educator who offerscademic help. The program is free for students and is targeted mainly to rural areas.

The program manager for Google’s Rolling Study Halls, Alex Sanchez, said in an interview that students participating in the programs are turning in more homework and showing academic gains in subjects like math and reading.

“The commutes are sometimes 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half, and that’s additional learning time that would otherwise be lost to travel,” Sanchez said. That’s time that students “can be using to kind of get ahead in work or do projects, [or] collaborate with their peers or their onboard educator.”

Another effort to transform buses into learning spaces is being led by Estella Pyfrom, founder of Estella’s Brilliant Bus. Pyfrom’s bus-turned-classroom, originally known as Project Aspiration, has been profiled by a variety of media organizations, from NBC to CNN to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.

Before founding the program, Pyfrom worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, and adult education instructor. She says she didn’t set out to create a mobile learning environment.

“I didn’t build a bus and then try to do a program on it,” she said. “I set up the program first and said, ‘What do I need to get it out there?’”

Today, her program offers 30- to 45-minute academic sessions, though students can spend more time on the bus as needed in order to complete assignments and do research or prepare for the GED or college.

Many of the families in her community, Pyfrom said, often have to make the decision to either put food on the table or pay for internet and technology.

Estella’s Brilliant Bus is equipped with 17 computer stations, all connected to the internet. Use of the bus is free for the public, though Pyfrom does accept donations. She also works with Microsoft, which replaces the computers and provides tech support. Microsoft covered the approximately $1 million cost to purchase and reconfigure the bus as a learning environment.

The Self-Determination Project, headed by Five Keys in San Francisco, has similar goals. The program serves four public housing complexes per day, focused on lower-income communities. It launched in June 2017 with the goal to serve the city’s at-risk population. Five Keys’ bus-turned-classroom includes a library, seating and desks, Chromebooks with internet access, and power outlets. It can fit 15 learners at a time.

Five Keys is an organization that offers a network of brick-and-mortar learning centers and charter schools throughout the Bay Area. Five Keys serves 3,000 students per day with 1,000 of those in county jails and 2,000 in community learning centers.

Safety, Accessibility

“Many of our students come from the most challenging neighborhoods in San Francisco,” said Steve Good, executive director at Five Keys. Some of the learning centers are in neighborhoods controlled by gangs, making it difficult for students to get to them on foot.

In addition, many housing projects where students live are often islands removed from major parts of the city, making it difficult for students use public transportation to get to classes.

With a mobile classroom, Good said, “You take the school to them and thus remove the barrier of safety and accessibility.”

The cost of buying and retrofitting the bus was about $100,000, an amount covered by the Google Impact Challenge.

Students’ use of the buses varies according to their need, Good explained. Some of the students using it are trying to complete classes they need for graduation. Others have farther to go, academically.

The flexibility the program provides is giving students an academic opportunity many of them haven’t had so far—and which they may not get down the road.

It can meet a “huge, unfilled need,” Good said. “Once you’re 18 and you drop out of school, there aren’t a lot of options available for you.”

Photo: At top, this is the inside of Five Keys’ mobile classroom, known as The Self-Determination Project. This bus-turned-classroom includes a library, seating and desks, Chromebooks with internet access, and power outlets. The photo below shows The Self-Determination Project parked in front of the urban community college, known as City College of San Francisco, located in California. Both photos are provided by Five Keys.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.