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virtual connection

Inside: Audiovisual

June 1, 2021
Wanted: Better audiovisual connections for schools

The Covid-19 pandemic forced most education institutions to quickly pivot and establish or enhance their audiovisual capabilities so that students forced to stay home could connect with their teachers and continue learning via online instruction.

For virtual teaching and learning to be effective, students and educators must have reliable connections to the internet, robust video capabilities and high-quality equipment. Those are some of the key findings of a study on student home connectivity by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The Student Home Connectivity Study is the result of six weeks of research that looked at 13 U.S. school districts—urban, suburban and rural. Together, the districts account for about 750,000 students.

The key findings of the study:

  • Learning with video is essential, so systems must have sufficient bandwidth and upload and download speeds. More than 85% of network traffic in remote learning is used for video, the study found, and the popularity of video-based instruction is expected to increase for the foreseeable future.
  • Students rely on access to wi-fi. Many students take part in online learning away from their own homes, and 92% use wi-fi to do so. Students often use district-provided devices and their own personal devices at the same time, which puts a greater strain on wi-fi capacity.
  • Certain areas, especially rural communities, require more resources. “Students in remote or rural areas most often have limited internet access, and students working in areas with a large concentration of other students also experience poor connectivity,” the study says.
  • The quality of remote learning is significantly affected by the quality of the devices being used. “Students that were provided with older and less powerful equipment had an inferior experience than students with newer devices,” the study says. “Students that received newer devices with limited specifications (e.g., memory and processor) also had more challenges than students that were provided with devices with better specifications.”

Based on the data from the study, CoSN recommends a per-student minimum bandwidth standard of 25 Mbps for downloading and 12 Mbps for uploading. The consortium concludes that the minimum bandwidth capacity set by the Federal Communications Commission for households (25 Mbps download speed and 3Mbps upload speed) is inadequate. “It’s crucial to highlight the importance of a per student standard and not a per-household standard like the current FCC recommendation,” CoSN says. “Standards should be set at the student level and account for the total number of students in the home. For example, network requirements to support a home with six children should be different from network requirements to support a home with one child.”

The study also recommends that education institutions regularly re-evaluate bandwidth needs to accommodate constantly evolving technologies.

“Support for higher video resolution, such as 1080p high definition and 4K, will most likely be required in the future,” the study says. “In addition, many new technologies, such as eSports, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality will likely be used to deliver instruction. These kinds of advanced technologies will require at least 25 Mbps download/upload speed for standard definition and up to 500 Mbps download/ upload speed for 4K video.”

School districts can take steps to help students get high-speed online connections in their homes, CoSN recommends, such as:

  • Provide network extenders in areas with poor signals.
  • Work with internet service providers to replace outdated routers.
  • Help families acquire new routers if their router has not been upgraded in a few years.
  • Educate families on router placement and maintenance.

School systems also should be gathering data about students’ home internet connections to ensure that students are getting the resources they need for effective learning.

“With access to…adequate data analytics, the participating school districts have been able to work with [internet service providers], application service providers, families, and community resources to address identified obstacles to adequate home internet access,” the study says. “Without actionable data, school districts may make ill-informed judgments, exhausting limited financial resources.”

Funding for the CoSN study was provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“Internet access remains critical to supporting student learning especially during these unprecedented times,” says Sandra Liu Huang, head of education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “The work that CoSN is doing to define the broadband need is absolutely vital to connect students and teachers, provide access to high-quality resources and build an equitable future for all students during the pandemic and beyond.”

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