At Washington Middle School in Green Bay, Wis., library media specialist Kristin Brouchoud has 11 mobile Wi-Fi hotspot devices to lend to students who want to take the Internet home with them. One recent day, they were all checked out.
The devices are part of a districtwide experiment to make sure that students have handy access to the Internet outside of school hours for homework or research. In past years, students without home service might have had to seek out a coffee shop, a McDonald’s, or a library or community center to do their online work. But the 22,000-student district is quietly trying a new approach this year.
“A lot of our teachers have changed the way they teach, and their lessons are all digital,” Ms. Brouchoud said. “It’s important for us to provide that service so we’re not giving some students an advantage while others are at a disadvantage.”
Students can take home those hotspots—a Kajeet MiFi device—for short-term and long-term use. Each of the district’s 10 secondary schools have up to 25 Kajeets, which are often paired with netbooks to be checked out.
Sixty percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and there are many families that don’t have high-speed Internet access, or a device, at home, said Diane Doersch, the district’s chief technology and information officer.
The district does not have a 1-to-1 device program, but it generally has about one device for every 1.5 students, Ms. Brouchoud said. “We are very sensitive about saying you must do this kind of (online) work at home,” she said. “We know we have families that don’t have that access and we don’t have enough devices for absolutely everybody.”
Cost is an issue for families. To bridge the gap, the district has invested in about 200 Kajeet MiFi devices and the data to use them, at a cost of about $20,000, Ms. Doersch said.
The Kajeet devices attach to Sprint or Verizon networks and have automatic filters and settings that a district can keep or customize, said Linda Kerr, the director of marketing for McLean, Va.-based Kajeet. For example, some districts allow students to access sites like YouTube and social networking, while others don’t. Each device costs about $120, and data is purchased separately, Ms. Kerr said.
The popularity of the Kajeet devices to help schools bridge the divide between students who have Internet access at home and those who don’t is growing. In 2013, about 10 districts were using the hotspots. That number is now 56, Ms. Kerr said. “Schools are bringing in all this technology, whether for state assessments or blended-learning programs,” she said. “All of a sudden they think, ‘Wow, we’ve got a problem because there are students who can’t get to what they need when they go home.’ ”
The devices do have data limits and other restrictions, and students need to learn how to manage their data use, Ms. Doersch said. Students using the devices can’t stream Netflix, for example, and the district has kept Kajeet services that filter out certain websites in place.
Managing data use is “a skill for the 21st century,” she said. “We’re teaching kids that the learning has to come first.”
So far, the district has not heavily advertised the MiFi units, but over the summer, there are plans to look at how well the program worked and to expand and promote it so more parents and students are aware of the option. Ms. Doersch said some parents decided to install home Internet service after seeing how beneficial it was for their children who used the Kajeet devices at home.
At Preble High School, also in the Green Bay district, library media specialist Lori Barber said she has students who rely heavily on the devices. Several students taking Advanced Placement classes, for example, do not have the Internet at home.
“Those kids can’t live without” the hotspots, she said. “I see this as extremely important. In school, there isn’t always time to do everything if you want to do it well.”
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A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as K-12 System Loans Hotspots for Connectivity