How Much Data Usage is Needed to Close the Homework Gap?

Over the past several weeks I have been blogging about the need for school systems to address digital equity.  Some are calling this the Homework Gap.  Most school systems are not doing anything to address this issue. The 2015 CoSN Infrastructure Survey results will give you the full picture; as a preview, we found that 3/4ths of all districts have not addressed this problem. 

My blog series has identified a range of strategies for school districts, from the easy to accomplish to the more comprehensive (e.g. Nashville or Charlotte-Mecklenburg). Some school systems are providing mobile hot spots that can be “checked out” to low income families; others are focused on getting subsidized at-home broadband to families through fiber to the home initiatives or Connect-to-Compete offerings.

All of these strategies raise the question of “How much data do students need to close the homework gap?”

This is not a simple question, but it is an important one.

The easy answer is “it depends,” but that vagueness can be problematic for education leaders who need reasonable averages that meet the need but don’t break the bank.

Here is what we know: Ericsson found that 61% of commercial mobile app traffic is from Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Instagram, and Snapchat. Unlimited access to these social media/video sites will likely bust anyone’s budget, even on a 5 GB plan. Some districts recommend blocking consumer video services like YouTube but allowing education video services (e.g. TeacherTube, SchoolTube, YouTube for Schools, Kahn Academy, TedEd, PBS Learning Material, etc.) to help with smart data management.

According to Michael Flood, Vice President for Strategy at Kajeet, “Even with consistent ‘acceptable use’ policies, the practices of the educator/student can vary data usage – are they in a Virtual Learning program that relies heavily on video conferencing? Are they online all the time (such as a virtual or hospitalized student) or only for “homework hours” in the afternoon/evening/weekend? What kind of device the student has can also influence usage because different platforms push out OS/App updates with different frequencies.”

Flood points out that average use per month per student on Kajeet’s Managed Education Broadband (involving thousands of students across 28 states and 100+ districts) averages under 1GB. This varies based on the policies schools set for how/when/what the connectivity can be used for. For example, districts who have switched from environments whose design is not tailored for off-campus student behaviors have seen as much as a 3x-5x reduction in average data usage, primarily from the careful management of consumer entertainment uses.

Miami Dade Public Schools is offering its school lunch eligible population Sprint’s ConnectEd. The Sprint broadband service (Spark) is available to 50,000 low income families from now through June 30, 2019. This 3GB per month offering is only available for eligible students living in territory served by Sprint and offered for four years of service once activated. The district and/or family must provide the device, and once the 3GB limit is hit that month, you cannot add additional data on that device and the connection is throttled back to be very slow. According to Deb Karcher, the 3GB limit hasn’t been a major problem because home access is still going through the district filter. That said, Karcher expressed concern about situations where other family members connect to the device and compromise the primary student’s usage. She also points out that students smartly seek free WiFi from places like McDonalds, Starbucks, Target to download bandwidth intensive apps. A detailed FAQ provides information on how the program works. 

Other school districts, such as in Pontiac, MI, use filtered mobile hotspots with the sort of managed service described by Flood that allows them to manage the number of devices they need and the number of months they need them, without any overage charges. This type of tracking data usage via a managed service is key for districts that want predictable fees.

If you are trying to estimate data usage need for outside of school learning, you might use Ting’s easy to use ‘Usage Calculator’ that estimates potential data use per month. For example, a colleague plugged in the following assumptions about what an enriched online homework experience might look like. She based these assumptions for what she felt a middle or high school student might need to do their homework. 

6 classes per day, 18 websites visited, 7 emails sent, 90 minutes of video: (2.8 GB). 

I thought that was too high an estimate of typical daily video use, so she ran the same assumptions but lowered it to 60 minutes of video a day: (1.9 GB).

As you can see, data usage can vary widely, depending on how you are using the technology for homework/home access.

Karcher told me that the most requested allowable domain is YouTube for Education. In Miami Dade, 1 hour of video uses 100MB, so 10 hours use 1 GB. This allows for a lot of YouTube while still leaving enough in a 3GB plan to access the internet, search, and use email. That said, the district blocks most social networking sites.

Here is a similar Data Consumption calculator from Kajeet:

Daily data limit (maximum allotment) per device

500

MBs

       
               

Data Consumption Chart: Kajeet Managed Education Broadband

Activity

Average Data Consumption

Daily Maximum Allotment

Monthly Maximum Allotment

 

500

MBs per device

14.8

GBs per device

Email (text)

35

KB

ea.

14,629

444,709

Email (text) with average size attachment

350

KB

ea.

1,463

44,471

Typical education webpage

500

KB

ea.

1,024

31,130

SD (480p) Education Video Streaming (e.g. Khan Academy, PBS, Discovery Education)

330

MB

hr.

91

minutes

2,764

minutes

HD (720p) Education Video Streaming

515

MB

hr.

58

minutes

1,771

minutes

Social Media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, flickr, Pinrest)

500

KB

post

Blocked for K-8 filter as default

Blocked for K-8 filter as default

Online Gaming

60

MB

hr.

Non-educational: blocked

Streaming Audio Entertainment/Music (e.g. Pandora)

60

MB

hr.

Non-educational: blocked

Video Calling (e.g. Skype)

720

MB

hr.

Non-educational: blocked

HD (1080p) Entertainment Video Streaming (e.g. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu)

1-4

GB

hr.

Non-educational: blocked

I also was wondering if it made sense to use mobile hotspots for students in virtual classes given potential data usage levels. According to Flood, it does make sense and their company works with some districts that use hotspots for students in virtual classes who lack home access. “Data usage does tend to be higher for virtual students than nonvirtual, but it is not outrageous. Virtual students don’t use live video as much as you might think, but certainly more than traditional students,” says Flood. Also, mobile hotspots in those instances provide “reasonable accommodation” for those without home broadband access. 

Unfortunately, one of the best offerings – Mobile Beacon’s 4G Internet service on CLEAR’s WiMAX network – will expire on November 6, 2015. This was an unlimited data plan for $10/month for all WiMax devices. Sprint purchased CLEAR and has announced its intent to discontinue the service.  According to Mobile Beacon, this impacts 429 schools, as well as 61 libraries and 1,820 nonprofit organizations across the U.S. This, in turn, will impact an estimated 300,000 Americans, including vulnerable populations such as students from low-income families, low-income adults, seniors, and the disabled. Check out the online petition protesting the decision which has been signed by CoSN.

This is a complicated issue, and one that needs more research. If you have research that other districts should know about, please email me at keith@cosn.org.

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