Jennifer Poff Cooper
Now every Montgomery County Public Schools student can claim, “My Wi-Fi.” Mi-Fi, or mobile hotspots, are newly available at every in Montgomery County for students to check out for use at home.
Harvey Goodwin, Director of Technology for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that bridging the ‘digital divide’ is a statewide concern of the Department of Education.
The MCPS Mi-Fi program is intended to provide Internet access for students who do not otherwise have it at home, whether they are without it because of location or because of economic factors.
Julie Craft, supervisor of instructional technology, said that the school system surveyed students in 2016 regarding access to the Internet.
At that time, 2,200 students responded and 13 percent of secondary students said they did not have an Internet connection at home.
Coverage varies by area, said Goodwin. Blacksburg has the greatest coverage, followed by Christiansburg.
The more rural areas served by the Auburn and Eastern Montgomery school strands lag behind, said Danny Knott, principal at Eastern Montgomery High School.
The devices work on cellular service. Therefore, in order to use the Mi-Fi devices, students must have cell coverage where they live.
Knott noted that there are spots in his eastern Montgomery district, as well as near Riner, that cell coverage is lost.
The county surveyed cell coverage, Goodwin said, and it was “good but not perfect.”
Cell providers service areas of greatest demand which leaves the less populated areas of the county underserved.
All county schools have Mi-Fi devices, with the program being most prevalent in the high schools and middle schools being next.
Elementary schools, said Goodwin, are seeded with two to three devices per school, with the school system monitoring and evaluating usage.
Craft said that MCPS is a leader in Virginia in implementing such a program; only Charlottesville and Montgomery County schools have begun Mi-Fi programs.
Knott says that a student interested in checking out a Mi-Fi device signs a contract form, then receives the device for a week.
At the end of that period, the student brings back the device to the media specialist (librarian) who checks that it is in good shape. If no other student is in the queue to receive the device, the student may check it out again.
According to Knott, the MCPS technology budget absorbs most of the cost. In addition, the four high schools received a grant, funded by Freedom First, from the Montgomery County Educational Foundation for $4,000 – $1,000 to each school to pay for the monthly costs.
Goodwin explained that several vendors or ‘after-market packagers’ sell to school systems. In Montgomery County, the schools’ technology department has worked to cut overhead costs by eliminating the middleman. It pays Verizon for the service but not the devices.
Compatible with the division-issued Chromebooks, the Mi-Fis can help students research and collaborate on school assignments while at home. All MCPS students in grades 5 through 12 have been issued Chromebooks, and the Mi-Fi is integrated into the Chromebook operating system through the Google console. Goodwin said that the Chromebook senses the Mi-Fi and connects automatically.
Craft said that Mi-Fi is a pilot program this semester, but that it has the “potential to level the playing field” for all students. According to Knott, one student currently is currently testing a Mi-Fi device and if all goes well, the program will begin to be advertised more widely to students in the coming weeks.
The response from teachers and staff has been positive, said Craft. It changes the way teachers plan their lessons, she continued.
With Mi-Fi, teachers can expect all students to do Internet work at home and come back the next day with the work done. “Teachers are excited to support students in this new way,” she said.
The Mi-Fi provides the same safe computer environment to students at home as at school, including full filtering under the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
Knott said he is excited about the possibilities the Mi-Fi program provides.
“It will make teachers’ jobs easier as we move into the Google platform in teaching the kids,” he said.