Quantifying the Homework Gap – Finally a Definitive Study

The Quello Center that is part of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University just released a definitive study that looks at the impact of lack of broadband on students. The study was done in conjunction with Merit Networks, the organization that acts as the ISP for schools in Michigan.

I describe the study as definitive because it used study techniques that isolate the impact of broadband from other factors such as sex, race, and family income. The study was done in conjunction with the schools to allow Quello researchers to get blind performance results from student participants without violating student confidentiality. The study involved 3,258 students in grades 8 – 11 in Michigan from schools described as being in rural areas.

The study showed significant performance differences for students with and without home broadband. Students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics including digital skills, homework completion and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18 while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
  • The study showed that students with no Internet at home often had no alternative access to broadband. 35% of students with no broadband also didn’t have a computer at home. 34% of students had no access to alternate sources of broadband such as a library, church, community center, or homes of a neighbor or relative.

One of the most important findings was that there is a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s almost too hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband. Digital skills not only involves competence in working with technology, but also is manifested by the ability to work efficiently, to communicate effectively with others, and managing and evaluation information.

Students with lower digital skills don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Students who are even modestly below average in digital skills (one standard deviation below the mean) rank nearly 7 percentiles lower on their total SAT/PSAT scores, 5 percentiles lower in math, and 8 percentiles lower in evidence-based reading and writing. Students who are even moderately lower in digital skills are also 19% less likely to consider a STEM-related career (that’s science, technology, engineering, and math).

The study also showed lower expectations for students without broadband at home. For example, 65% of students with home broadband have plans to pursue post-secondary education. Only 47% of students with no Internet access have such plans.

This study is significant because it is the first study I know of that isolates the impact of home broadband from other factors. There are other studies that have shown that lack of broadband hurt school performance, but in other studies it was impossible to isolate Internet access from factors like household income levels.

This study should be a wake-up call for getting broadband into the home of every student. It’s not tolerable to allow a big percentage of our kids to underperform in school due to the lack of home broadband. We know that underperforming in school translates to underperforming in lifetime earnings, and so the cost to society for not fixing the homework gap is far larger than the cost to find a broadband solution. If you are lucky enough to have a home computer – do the math.

Using Cellular for Home Broadband

slow-downFor some time both Verizon and AT&T have been telling the FCC and state Commissions that they want to replace rural telephone lines with cellular connections, which means bringing cellular data plans to rural areas. We’ve now finally seen Verizon’s plans for what rural cellular data plans will look like:

The headline on this Verizon web site is “use the power of the Verizon 4G LTE Network to give you a lightning-fast Internet connection in your home,” followed later on in the offer with the header “Ditch your Low-Speed Internet.”

Those phrases sound great until you then see the offered speeds: “Fast Internet access with average speeds of 5 – 12 Mbps download and 2 – 5 Mbps upload.” I guess for somebody who’s been on dial-up this might be lightning fast, but it’s awfully hard to call this broadband.

But then comes the real kicker when they list the price and the monthly data caps:

  • 10 GB monthly data cap $60
  • 20 GB monthly data cap $90
  • 30 GB monthly data cap $120
  • $10 per additional gigabit of usage.

Before I totally scoff at this, it’s important to realize that there are already many households trying to get by using today’s cellular plans for home data. Compared to those plans this new offer is a little better. But these new plans are not broadband and it displays the greed of the cellular companies that they can even put such a plan into the public with a straight face. What these plans say to anybody living in a rural Verizon or AT&T area is – you’re screwed.

It’s easy to put these plans into perspective. Just last week I was traveling in Minnesota and there was a day that I used my cellular data plan to power by laptop broadband. In just one day, doing only normal business things, I used over a gigabit of data. I didn’t watch video or do anything that was a blatant data hog. And so the $120 plan would not even power my one business laptop for a month and I’d be paying that much per month and facing $10 for every gigabit I went over 30 GB.

Cellular data in this country is among the most expensive data used anywhere in the world. When you look at charts that are occasionally compiled of worldwide data prices per megabit the only places more expensive are Antarctica, some parts of Africa, and remote islands. And Verizon wants to take that ultra-expensive cellular data and extend it into rural homes.

This pricing by Verizon should end once-and-for-all the arguments that I hear all of the time that the future of rural broadband is wireless. Verizon has it within their means to offer an affordable alternative broadband product from rural cell towers – and this is not it.

I can fully understand why cellular companies don’t want to sell broadband connections in urban areas that are used to streaming Netflix – busy cell sites are really not made for that and such a connection ties up a valuable channel for a long time. But in rural areas where there are fewer people using cell towers the wireless carriers potentially could offer an affordable product with a much larger data cap. They fact that they are choosing to not do so says more about their greed than anything else.

I hope the FCC is paying attention to this. A copy of this web site need to be attached to any filing that the cellular carriers make at the FCC asking to tear down rural copper and replace it with cellular data. If the FCC supports such an idea, even in the slightest – this is what they are agreeing to.