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The homework gap was starkly highlighted during the pandemic when instruction moved online, and millions of students did not have adequate home devices or connectivity. Issues of educational equity and inclusion are not new to the founders of Kajeet.
The company, based in McLean, Virginia, delivers secure and controlled wireless experiences. The name is an anagram of the initials of the children of the men who created the company, and it represents all children. ASBJ’s Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Vail recently interviewed Kajeet founder, chairman, and CEO Daniel Neal.
Why did you start Kajeet
I was working in Israel in 1997 and saw a little kiddie phone with four buttons: Mom, Dad, the babysitter, and the Israeli equivalent of 911. When I saw that, I had three reactions. First, I thought, that’s going to be a supercomputer some day. Second, however it happens, every kid is going to have one of those—a supercomputer—in their pocket or backpack. Third, I thought, that’s complicated. There are a lot of issues around that, and there will need to be a company focused on that.
I kept scanning the horizon for someone to create that company to address those issues I knew were coming in 1997. Nobody did it. I talked to my wife, quit my job, spent a couple of years meeting people, putting the team together, researching, putting in capital, raising capital, and eventually launching, initially, the world’s first cellphone for kids with parental controls. It wasn’t quite a supercomputer yet. It was evolving. Other things were evolving; education was evolving. We began with cellphones, which was a good place to start.
The deeper idea was to make great mobile services for children and all those who love them. There are roughly 55 million schoolchildren in America. I knew that educators love their kids too. And school board members, too, who devote their time to make public education better. I tell everyone in our company, we may have been through public schools, we have employees who were educators, but we at Kajeet are not the educators. Our job is to help all those in education be successful in their mission to their beloved students.
This concept of parental controls is interesting: who can do what, when, under what conditions, what time of day, and who pays for it. We solved for this when we launched the first cellphone for kids with parental controls in early 2007. I knew parental controls might be thought about as educational controls. Control is a heavy-handed notion. I think more in terms of safety and security—keeping children safe from all manner of things as phones became internet tools, connecting students to teachers, classwork, mentors, and, during the pandemic, instruction itself.
How do we solve the problem of the homework gap? [Kajeet general manager] Michael Flood led us into the realm of developing the early SmartSpot, a little hockey puck that connects to various wireless networks. We provided to the educator and the school, just as we had to parents, the ability to shape the experience and provide safety, focus, and security from things like ransomware. Safety is for the student and for the network.
What are some new or innovative solutions to close the homework gap and support digital inclusion?
We started with K-12, but we pushed out to library systems, community colleges, universities, and nonprofits that serve low-income, migrant, and homeless students. We have connected over half a million students in the United States to their homework, schoolwork, and educators, in various ways. We began with this creative notion of the SmartSpot, which puts the power in the hands of educators to provide security, focus, and safety. Any device with Wi-Fi can connect to the SmartSpot, and then the SmartSpot connects to all the carriers we work with. It was clever because it was very flexible; it could work with any kind of device. Then we went to embedded devices. We have a Chromebook with connectivity to cellular networks. We take the connection and route it through Sentinel, our platform, which is where we provide control, filtering, data analytics, management, and grouping of students.
We innovated with SmartBus. On average, students spend 22 days of time on a yellow school bus each year. Why not make some of that time productive? Who hasn’t done just-in-time studying? Some experts estimate over 9 million kids don’t have internet connectivity. I feel that is underreported. I think the number is significantly higher, which gets to issues of structural poverty and social injustice. Austin ISD, for instance, has parked Kajeet buses near low-income housing so students and their families could use the Wi-Fi. Sometimes the schools would use the buses to serve food. They did something fast and innovative. We serve over a thousand bus fleets in the U.S. Our core of technology, devices, and networks must work for them.
Tell me about your digital inclusion grants.
We care about students, civil rights, and equity. That’s part of the DNA of our company. We are in our fourth year of digital inclusion grants. We provide free devices and connectivity for a year. We are accepting applications in December for 2022. For 2021, we gave out 85 grants. The grants give us an opportunity to go in and say, here are best practices from other districts. It’s a technology transfer program. Will it make a difference in your district? Will it improve engagement, graduation rates, and test scores? Grades, standardized test scores, graduation rates, attendance, tardiness: We know that providing connectivity that is easy, secure, safe, and focused does improve those measurements.
For more information about Kajeet, go to www.kajeet.net. To find out more about Kajeet’s digital inclusion grants, go to https://www.kajeet.net/digitalinclusion.