Google's Wi-Fi connected school buses fill education gap for rural US students

Google's Rolling Study Hall program, which provides Chromebooks and free W-Fi to low-income students with long bus rides, is expanding to 11 new states.

Can Apple cut into Google's education tech lead?
Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • Google's Rolling Study Hall program launched in 2016, providing Chromebooks and Wi-Fi to thousands of students in North Carolina.
  • It is now expanding to 16 school districts across the country after gains in reading proficiency and digital literacy.

Google is planning to expand its school bus Wi-Fi program to 11 more states after rave reviews from students, teachers and school administrators, the firm announced in a post on its Google for Education website.

The program was initially rolled out in Caldwell County, North Carolina in 2016 after a years-long relationship between the area and Google due to the data centers built there by the massive tech company, as reported by our sister site ZDNet.

Rolling Study Hall was then expanded to Berkeley County, South Carolina last year, with nearly 2,000 rural students benefiting from 1,700 Chromebooks that were donated by Google and the free Wi-Fi that was added to 28 school buses. According to CBS, Google also had a previous relationship with the county, creating hundreds of local jobs and investing more than $1 billion in the area since 2007 through its data centers.

The school bus initiative focuses on maximizing the long travel times that students in rural areas are forced to sit through by giving them an opportunity to do homework and additional computer exercises, the post said.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

"A Rolling Study Hall is like an extended classroom. It addresses the needs of students that don't have wifi or internet access in their home," Lilyn Hester, Google's Head of Southeast Public Affairs, told a local news station last year.

Google said on the site that, through their research, they found teachers are assigning more homework that requires the internet, but millions of low-income students in rural areas do not have access to internet at home and waste hours on lengthy bus rides to and from school.

"While teachers increasingly assign schoolwork that requires access to the internet, millions of students lack connectivity at home," they wrote on the website for the program. "This 'Homework Gap' disproportionately impacts low-income students, especially in more remote or rural areas, where they face additional burdens like long bus commutes."

According to the post, both North Carolina and South Carolina saw significant increases in math and reading proficiency as well as digital literacy, prompting Google to expand the program to 70 buses in 16 rural school districts in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, as well as new districts in South Carolina.

"Not everything can be covered during the school day and all students can benefit from additional help outside the classroom," South Carolina State Superintendent Molly Spearman said in a press release last year after the project started. "Google's Rolling Study Hall initiative is an innovative approach that allows bus riders to have connectivity and support to complete their assignments."

Google also plans to maximize the Wi-Fi-equipped school buses when they aren't on the road, placing them in key areas where local residents can access the internet from them.

The Chromebooks donated to the schools are restricted so that students can only access educational programs and certain homework websites, the post said. Each program will be tailored to the specific needs of the state, and Google will not have access to any information on the laptops.

Google is also retrofitting the school buses with cameras so that educators can monitor student progress and the company has also been hiring tech tutors to ride with students in case of any questions, according to Caldwell Country schools.

"For some kids in our community and communities across the country, the digital highway and all the knowledge and opportunity it holds comes to an abrupt end when the school bell rings," Caldwell County Google Site hardware operations manager Enoch Moeller said in a press release from the local elementary school. "Google is proud to be part of a safe, well-supervised program that extends these students' wifi access to the world."

Google and Apple are battling for classroom supremacy in school districts across the country. In addition to providing free Chromebooks and Wi-Fi to thousands of students through the Rolling Study Hall project, the tech giant also offers its "G-Suite for Education" online programs. Just last week, Apple announced that it was releasing low-cost iPads directly tailored for schools.

Susan Molinari, Google's vice president for the Americas, told USA Today that the tech giant is happy to see students benefit from the program and increase their access to the internet.

"The test scores go up and the kids come to school ready to learn," Molinari said. "And an inquisitive, confident student is good for the United States."

Also see

Image: iStockphoto/JerryB7