Iowa School Districts Testing WiFi in School Buses for Students

Students often spend long hours in school buses traveling to sports events or other extracurricular activities. Some districts are offering WiFi to help the students get their homework done.

schools, school bus, WiFi, U.S. Cellular, routers, homework

Some Iowa school students can spend as much as three hours a day in school buses traveling to and from sporting events or other extracurricular activities after classes, which can make it hard for them to get their homework completed.

To try to solve that conundrum, several Iowa school districts have begun pilot projects to install mobile wireless routers in their buses to see if providing on-board WiFi hotspots can help students get their homework completed during those long after-school commutes.

The idea came about, said Rob Cordes, the superintendent of Iowa's Carroll Community School District, after some parents asked for help with the problem. A school board member also raised this issue at a board meeting.

Students who participate in after-school fine arts programs or sports can travel on buses heading to and from events that can be as far as two hours away at least several times a week, Cordes told eWEEK.

"We're coming up now on track season, and kids might be on a bus for 90 minutes to their event, and then head home at 10:30 p.m. and have a 90-minute ride home," he said. "There's a lot of time they could be doing some things."

Those long rides in the past also meant that some students wouldn't be able to start work on their homework until they got home late, which was difficult for them and could cause family tensions.

Last fall, the district installed ruggedized WiFi hotspot routers from mobile carrier U.S. Cellular in six of its buses that are used to transport students to after-school events to explore whether adding WiFi could help the students better manage their schoolwork and extracurricular activities.

"That's one of the main reasons we went with it," Cordes told eWEEK. So far, several teachers have told him that students are using the WiFi in the buses and that it has been helpful. "Now is it getting used for homework all the time? I can't promise you that," he added.

The routers from U.S. Cellular cost about $500 each, plus there are costs for monthly data plans and special antennas. So far, there have been months when the students used more data than the plan allowed, but in other months the unused data rolled over, said Cordes.

The district has another 26 buses, but they are used for shorter routes to take students back and forth to school. "Right now, the routers are aimed at the activity buses, since the other routes aren't typically that long," Cordes told eWEEK. "I won't say we will never [expand the program to all of the district's buses], but at this point we don't have plans to do that."

The school district, which has about 1,700 students and is about 70 miles west of Ames, also provides Chromebook computers to every student in fifth through twelfth grades, while every fourth grader has a school-issued Apple iPad.

Greene County's Bus WiFi Experiment

Not far away, the Greene County Community School District has also been experimenting with WiFi on some of its activity buses for some of its 425 students, Superintendent Tim Christensen told eWEEK.

Since the school district also has a Chromebook program for its students, the bus-based WiFi initiative made lots of sense, he said.

"We looked at it from the perspective of students getting home late" from after-school activities, said Christensen. "With the Chromebooks, they could be doing their homework en route. It appeared to be an opportunity, so we started to take a look at that."

The research into such a program began in September 2014, and by February two of the district's activity buses were outfitted with the ruggedized U.S. Cellular routers. Because the district is fairly rural, students can be on the buses for as long as an hour each way, he told eWEEK.

"If this goes well, I could see our district saying, 'Let's put these in all of our buses for kids to do their homework on their way to school and on their way home from school," he said. The district has 10 bus routes and 13 buses. "I think we'll be able to collect quite a bit of data to decide whether we're going to expand it in the fall."

The district is using content filters with the routers and Chromebooks so that students can't peruse unauthorized Websites or subjects, he said.

Overall, the idea of the pilot project is a good one, and it provides improved ways for students to stay in touch with their families and friends even when they are away from home, he said. "Once we get into it farther, we'll likely find out that there are more opportunities to make use of it for the kids."

Mike Adams, U.S. Cellular's director of business sales in Iowa and Nebraska, said in a statement that the company is always looking to find innovative ways to bring the latest technology into schools to help improve education. "We want to help students stay connected to their schoolwork with wireless routers and nationwide coverage that works in cities and rural communities," said Adams.