Not too long ago, I commuted to and from work every day by public transportation—by work, I mean school, and by public transportation, I mean school bus. In elementary school, I spent about one hour of my day on the bus. By the time I reached high school, our local school had shut down, resulting in a doubled catchment area. Consequently, I had to be bused farther away, extending my commute to 1.5 to 2 hours a day. At the time, the “late naughties”—my fellow bus mates and I—passed the time by reading, gossiping, texting on our Blackberrys, and toying with our iPod Touches. And, yes, on occasion, we would push, punch and fight each other while covertly avoiding the eyes of our bus driver through her mirror, with limited success. Most of our school work, if we got to it, was completed from book reading and note-taking by hand.
One decade later, teachers increasingly rely on online classroom solutions, where students are expected to learn independently, and complete assignments all within virtual workspaces with Wi-Fi becoming ubiquitous in school. As well, BYOD (bring your own device) policies have permeated school curriculums, as students are expected to use their own technology for their learning and for assessment. It has been argued that leveraging technology in everyday classroom teaching has been beneficial for students and teachers alike; however, relying on online technologies can put students with limited Internet access at a disadvantage. While many schools have the funds to provide every student with Internet access and devices in school, not many can guarantee that these students will have reliable Internet access after school hours. Simply living in a rural area can limit a student’s access to reliable Internet connectivity, creating a distinct disadvantage that is compounded with a longer commute time on the school bus. This limitation causes students to put a pause on their online homework, which more often than not means a pause on all homework. This forced pause for students with long rural bus rides affords their urban-dwelling peers more time to complete assignments, potentially widening the often cited “digital divide.” To combat this deficit, we are now seeing an uptake in extending school Wi-Fi to school buses.
Following its April Fools 2018 campaign, Google announced the “Rolling Study Hall” program, providing devices and free school bus Wi-Fi to students with long bus rides in 11 US states, drawing unprecedented attention to Wi-Fi solutions on school buses. The collective positive buzz around school bus Wi-Fi now appears to be triggering widespread adoption of the technology, as the prices for integrating the technology on bus fleets falls. Wi-Fi on buses is being lauded as essential for bridging the digital divide between urban and rural students.
However, little evidence exists to indicate that school bus Wi-Fi can lead to higher student achievement, especially for students who have long rural bus rides. Additionally, as an Ontario Certified Teacher, I also question how I should design my lesson plans so that my students on long bus rides can complete assignments during the same timeframe as students who have much shorter commutes.
In search of answers, I attended the 2018 Canadian Pupil Transportation Conference, where, to my surprise, I learned that my old school district had just started to implement Wi-Fi on their buses! As of March 2018, they had 12 school buses running with onboard Wi-Fi for students with commute times ranging from 6 to 90 minutes one-way. After a positive initial response, they plan to continue to bring the technology to more buses, in the name of student equity and achievement. This program has been sustainable so far because they had a strongly integrated BYOD policy and virtual learning environments (VLE) in their classrooms, heightening the need to bring their rural students online. They provided specific PD to their teachers on designing homework plans (“bus” work) within the VLEs that could be completed in the duration of a short bus ride, as well as robust school board technical support in order to keep the Wi-Fi running smoothly. Soon, the school board will be investigating whether students on the buses will see higher achievement after the implementation of Wi-Fi. Assuming they see an increase, it is not difficult to imagine other school boards investing in Wi-Fi on school buses to meet equity and achievement goals.
When I think back to when I rode the school bus, I can’t help but imagine what my bus ride would be like with free Wi-Fi. I would have probably interacted less with my peers on the bus, and I would have been focused on completing school work, or perhaps finding ways to circumvent the internet restrictions to watch YouTube. But, I also sense that my peer interactions would have shifted more towards the digital realm. While a bus driver may report that the students are better behaved on a bus where students appear isolated and tranquil, I suppose there would be more online conflicts than physical ones, which would go undetected unless reported. I can also imagine my bus driver threatening to disengage the Wi-Fi if we did get too rowdy; I’m sure that would have efficaciously altered our behaviour.
School busing has seen very little innovation in the last half-century, at least in terms of its place in education. Now, it is the dawn of a new era, as school buses are poised to truly become an extension of the 21st century classroom, and just as how adults are expected to be connected even while driving to and from work, students will be expected to do the same on their morning and afternoon school bus rides. However, there are many unanswered questions: Is completing work on a bus a fair expectation? In an under-supervised bus environment, will there be an uptick in cyberbullying? How do we, as teachers, adjust our demands and expectations of students in an ever-evolving techno-landscape?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sawyer Hogenkamp is an Ontario Certified Teacher, currently completing his Master’s of Education. Having ridden the school bus all 13 years of his elementary and secondary education, he was surprised to find that very little academic research exists on the day-to-day experience of bus drivers and the students that ride school buses.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.