Wi-Fi on school buses is a growing trend in the US, and is starting to appear in Canada. This article takes a careful look at both the potential benefits, especially for rural and lower-income students, and drawbacks.
Wi-Fi in schools in Canada has become a top priority, with many school boards ensuring all of their schools have Wi-Fi access. Teachers are increasingly relying on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), where students are expected to work and collaborate within an online space. With the increase in the usage of such technologies, we are beginning to witness a “digital divide” between students with reliable Internet access at home, and students without it. Often, students living in rural areas only have access to connectivity that provides basic web browsing and email functions at best, and cannot efficiently stream a YouTube video or reliably upload an email attachment. Coupled with the fact that rural students are often bused long distances, and have to spend up to two hours a day or more sitting idle on a school bus, rural students may be at risk of falling behind peers who live close to school resources, simply because of where they live. Consequently, some school boards are now turning to Wi-Fi on school buses in an effort to make their school network mobile.
Particularly in the U.S., the buzz around Wi-Fi on school buses has increased, thanks in part to Google’s recent April announcement of their “Rolling Study Hall” program. This program is putting free Wi-Fi on buses in 11 states and providing those students with free Chromebooks. Along with this buzz, there have been a number of success stories related to school bus Wi-Fi. In Kansas, one educator commented positively on a class field trip to a creek, where the Wi-Fi that the bus provided allowed the students to collect data and submit written reports during the field trip before getting back to school. Similarly, in Coachella Valley, in the southern California Desert, solar-powered buses provided free Internet to low-income students who have no Internet access in their remote trailer park communities. Anecdotally, schools in Coachella Valley have seen their graduation rate increase from 70 to 80 percent during the years the buses offered Wi-Fi (2012 to 2015). The adoption of Wi-Fi on buses in the U.S. is about to explode.
Success stories are also being reported in Canada: In Alberta, bus drivers reported a decrease in behavioural problems on school buses with Wi-Fi, presumably because students interacted with each other less. In Guelph, Ontario, Wellington-Dufferin Student Transportation Services (STWDSTS) has implemented Wi-Fi on 12 of their school buses, serving students with both short and long bus rides; some of these students spend up to three hours a day on the school bus. STWDSTS have reported that all of their students appreciate and use the Wi-Fi extensively, and that parents are now demanding Wi-Fi on all school buses, even on shorter, primarily urban routes. This school board also highlighted that their implementation of school bus Wi-Fi has been sustained because of the collective efforts of the board, school administration, and teachers. They vigorously promoted school bus Wi-Fi, and held professional development for teachers to re-conceptualize how to design homework, or “buswork,” as it is now called. All buswork can be completed during the duration of a student’s bus ride, so as not to put rural students at a disadvantage compared to those who do not need to be bused.
In tandem with these apparent successes, some questions have yet to be answered. Cyberbullying – already an urgent issue – could increase if students in an under-supervised environment gain under-supervised Wi-Fi access. Any Internet supervision would at best be done remotely, because school bus drivers certainly cannot monitor students’ online behaviours in real time while driving a bus. This leads to another dilemma: Is it fair to expect students to complete homework on school buses, and to conceptualize school buses as a mobile classroom? Is it fair to capitalize on this part of students’ time after school? If so, what about the ergonomics of sitting crouched over the device, and the students who will surely be carsick should they stare at a screen during their whole ride home?
In an industry that has seen very little modernization in terms of the passenger experience, Wi-Fi on school buses may transform millions of students’ educational experiences. Initial indications are suggesting it is for the better, but we need more time and research to truly make a valid assessment.
Original illustration: iStock
First published in Education Canada, March 2019