September is back to school time. In normal years, it’s the time for buying clothes and supplies and starting the routine of early morning breakfasts followed by the kids trudging off to school.
But this is far from a normal year. For many families, “school” is no longer a place you go to but the place where you live, and many students are sharing their “campus” with their parents’ workplace, putting an even bigger demand on internet access, available equipment, working spaces and the sanity of everyone in the family.
Internet access and equipment
Most students need either a computer (desktop or laptop) or a tablet, but if you use a tablet, make sure you have a physical keyboard — at least for students who will need to type their assignments. You will, of course, also need an internet connection.
Fortunately, most families already have a broadband connection and either a computer or tablet, but there is still a digital divide as was evidenced by that now-famous photo of two young girls sitting in a parking lot of a Salinas Taco Bell to access the restaurant’s WiFi because they didn’t have internet at home. The kids’ school later provided the family with an internet hot spot so they could do their schoolwork from home, but not all families get this type of support. According to a recent study from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group, “15 to 16 million kids—3 to 4 million more than previous estimates—and as many as 400,000 teachers lack adequate internet or computing devices at home.” As the study points out, this is no longer about just doing homework. “Lack of access to the internet and a distance learning device during the coronavirus pandemic school closures puts these students at risk of significant learning loss.” The study found that Latinx, Black and Native American students were disproportionately affected.
Free or low-cost internet and devices
If you can’t afford connectivity or a device, check with your students’ school and with local internet service providers. Many school districts are providing devices to families who need them, and some have entered into partnerships with Comcast and other internet service providers to offer free internet access to low-income families.
Comcast, AT&T and other internet service providers offer low-cost connectivity or temporarily free packages for low-income families. Comcast’s Internet Essentials costs $9.95 to families who qualify, but during the pandemic, Comcast is offering new Internet Essentials customers two months of free Internet access if they sign up before the end of 2020. The company is forgiving back debt so anyone can apply and the service comes with tools to manage children’s WiFi connected devices, control screen time and limit access to only age-appropriate content. AT&T also has a plan for about $10 a month. I recommend parents start by calling their school and then check in with all internet providers in their area. Some schools can arrange for free hot spots to provide access to families who may not have access to wired internet for a variety of reasons, including being unhoused.
What is ‘adequate?
Adequate is, of course, a relative term. Most families do have some access to the internet, but in many cases, it’s through a cell phone or a broadband connection that may be too slow for distance learning, especially if a student is sharing the connection with siblings who are also at school and parents who are at work. And while smartphones may be adequate for looking up information, they’re not appropriate for most classroom work, and the internet connection may be too slow or too expensive, depending on the data plan and how good the connection happens to be.
The Common Sense Media report recommends 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed as a reasonable minimum standard. Most video apps will function with as little as 1.5 Mbps per user, but you need to multiply that by the number of users and factor in other internet use taking place. But even if you think you have adequate bandwidth, you might still suffer from poor video quality or periodic outages if you are anywhere near close to the minimum requirements. Even if you have a decent connection, there could be times when the internet is too slow for optimal video and audio, I had what I thought was an abundance of bandwidth with my 200 Mpbs Comcast connection, but I was only getting about 8 Mbps upload speed but sometimes it was much slower. That should have been enough, but when I was on live TV via Skype, my signal deteriorated and my image looked blurry to the viewers. I paid a little more to upgrade my service to a full gigabit, and that solved the problem because — in addition to getting faster download speed — my new service comes with faster upload speed. I don’t think most people need as fast a service as I have. That Common Sense Media recommendation of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up should be sufficient for most families.
If your service seems slow
If you think you have an adequate connection but are having slow service, do the following. First, check your connection speed by using any of the sites listed at larrysworld.com/speedtest. They generally report download speed, which affects what you see, upload speeds that affect what others see of you on video calls and ping speed which impacts how quickly a site might load. Use more than one test to get a general idea, but know that speed can vary greatly throughout the day.
If you think you’re having trouble, turn off your device and disconnect the modem or gateway and the router if you have a separate router. Wait 30 seconds and reconnect the modem or gateway and then the router. Then turn on the devices and see if the situation has improved. If not, call your internet service provider to see if the problem is on their end or if it makes sense to upgrade. A faster connection may be less expensive than you think.
Space, lighting and other factors
Aside from technology factors, you need to consider space, lighting, acoustics and other factors. It’s not always possible for everyone to have their own room to work in, but try to set aside a space that has good lighting from the front, above or sides but not from the back (backlighting washes out your image). Be aware of other noises in the household and consider using a headset that plugs into a computer’s USB port or mobile device’s charging port. Be aware that when you’re on a video call, others may see and hear what’s happening in your home so make sure everyone behaves appropriately, even if they’re not the person on the call.
And check in with your kids to make sure they’re doing OK with online learning. A recent New York Times article discussed children’s anxieties over being seen on camera. Have a talk with your children about whatever may concern them, including worries about how they are dressed and how they will be perceived by teachers and other students. And it’s not just how they’re dressed. It’s also their facial expressions. It’s worth talking with your child and perhaps their teachers about when it’s OK to turn off the camera.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.