A sophomore at Watkins Glen High School can use the 45-minute bus ride to her rural home to do her schoolwork with her own personal device. The quarterback of the high school’s football team can complete his assignments on his hour and a half journey to a game at a neighboring school.
In March, the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) School District furnished its 18 buses with Wi-Fi access. Students involved in Watkins Glen High School’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program use their bus rides home, which can last up to 45 minutes, to do homework.
According to school district Superintendent Tom Phillips, about 20 percent of students in the area come from rural homes that have little or no Internet connection. The BYOD program allows students who may not have Wi-Fi at home to bring a device to school in order to use the Internet to complete schoolwork.
The village of Watkins Glen is home to about 18,500 people, a nationally ranked public park, and a NASCAR track. Phillips said the goal is to provide all students with the ability to use the Internet to research school material, no matter how remote their homes may be.
“It’s a beautiful little area, but once you get out of the village, you’re in God’s country,” Phillips said. “The issue is not only homework, but the ability to access resources that can help them develop deeper understanding of whatever subject they’re studying. It’s really about providing equal access to a more rich understanding and breadth of resources.”
The implications of increased Wi-Fi extend beyond providing access for students who may have none at home. While the BYOD program is restricted to high school kids, younger students can also benefit from the connection. Teachers can bring carts supplied with laptops on field trips. Popular destinations for Watkins Glen schoolchildren include Mark Twain’s home in Elmira, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, and the bird sanctuary in Montezuma. Once classes begin, students can use the laptops on or near the buses to do online exercises regarding the field trip destination.
“We’ve now extended the classroom to the bus,” Phillips said.
Student athletes, in addition to students without Wi-Fi at home, can also benefit from the buses’ connection. According to Melanie Chandler, director of technology for the Watkins Glen School District, the high school’s varsity football and cross-country teams travel up to two hours to compete against other schools. On nights when they have games or meets, bus rides are the only time they can do homework unless they want to stay up until the wee hours of the morning.
One of the questions that arises from Wi-Fi access for students is how they spend their time with the connection. While students who bring their own devices could be looking up trigonometry equations, they could also be streaming episodes of The Office. Chandler said the school fully monitors what students are doing online and that administrators have the ability to block certain sites that may be inappropriate for teens.
While furnishing buses with Wi-Fi marks a big technological advancement, Phillips said the administrators’ work is far from over. He said they will monitor Internet use throughout the upcoming school year, and are also working on a way to establish better connection in rural homes.
One possible solution is for bus drivers, who live throughout the county, to drive their buses home at the end of the day. The buses themselves act as Wi-Fi hotspots, and can offer nearby homes Internet connection.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think we’re on to something,” Phillips said.