How much broadband speed do students need?

'A student has to have at least a tablet, if not a laptop or PC, to be connected,' expert says
By: | December 8, 2020
Smartphones do not provide sufficient connectivity for students to do homework and participate in other educational activities, experts say. (GettyImages/Imgorthand)Smartphones do not provide sufficient connectivity for students to do homework and participate in other educational activities, experts say. (GettyImages/Imgorthand)

With many school districts across the country likely to start 2021 online, experts say it’s clear that smartphones do not provide sufficient connectivity for online learning, homework or other educational activities.

And several months into the pandemic, rural areas and low-income also do not have adequate connectivity, says Johannes M. Bauer, chair for media and information policy and director of Michigan State University’s James H. and Mary B. Quello Center.

“Mobile is just insufficient, and it creates the illusion that a student is connected,” says Bauer. “A student has to have at least a tablet, if not a laptop or PC, to be connected.”

Bauer also recently conducted a Q&A with Pew Charitable Trusts on broadband needs.

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Another concern is that CARES Act funding may soon be exhausted. While students will be able to keep devices they’ve been given by the school districts, funding for data plans could become scarce, Bauer says.

Comcast announced this week that it will offer another 60 days of high-speed Internet service to low-income families through its Internet Essentials program, which has so far connected more than 4 million students, the company says.

Comcast will provide service even to customers who have outstanding bills with the company.

In September, Comcast also launched more than 1,000 Community Lift Zones at community centers where students can connect to Wi-Fi.

Long-term ed-tech issues

With online and hybrid learning likely to play a key role in K-12 education beyond COVID, there are longer termer ed-tech issues for which school administrators will need to begin planning, Bauer says.

How much speed do we need?

The broadband research team at The Pew Charitable Trusts released an analysis asking the question: How much broadband speed do Americans need?

“Tech keeps changing—what works today, the quality of devices and the level of connectivity that is sufficient today, may be obsolete in three years,” Bauer says.

Superintendents and CIOs need to create formal monitoring systems to track ever-increasing connectivity needs and flag “shortfalls and bottlenecks.”

For instance, which demands higher broadband speeds and more powerful computers, could soon play a larger role in K-12 instruction, he says.

Educators must also provide digital literacy skills to parents and caregivers so they can better help students with online learning.

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“In order to fully reap the benefits, the home environment needs to be conducive to digital learning,” Bauer says. “This is typically beyond what administrators can influence, though some schools have adopted program to involve parents and caretakers in continuing educational efforts to help them become better educational supports in the process of digital learning.”

Ultimately, ensuring all students have adequate connectivity and devices is critical to the success of all future initiatives—whether online or in-person—to make the education system equitable and close achievement gaps.

“Without equitable access, any other activity will be handicapped,” Bauer says. “It’s a necessary condition to do all the other things we’d like to achieve. There’s a broader community and equality aspect to digital connectivity that goes beyond its immediate instrumental use in the school system.”


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