Imagine only being able to access the internet in a public place like a library, restaurant or even roadside rather than in the comforts of your home.
For K-12 students in 360,000 rural homes—or about 27 percent of Michigan students—the lack of home internet service is a reality that could impact their performance in school and opportunities to communicate and coordinate with their educators and peers. At the Michigan State University Quello Center, it’s an untenable position that calls for research into the true state of Michigan’s broadband network and the effect it has on kids.
The Quello Center received the Merit 2019 Innovation Award from Merit Network for their research into understanding Michigan’s homework gap. Merit originated as a consortium of Michigan universities that was responsible for building and managing NSFNET, the forerunner of today's Internet. Today, Merit is a non-profit regional education network that provides internet connectivity for school, libraries, and other anchor institutions.
Quello researchers say the study recognized by Merit is among the first to combine crowd-sourced network data with survey data and standardized test scores. The study is part of a larger project to develop actionable research to close the digital divide.
“We’ve long recognized that we don’t have clear and accurate data as it relates to broadband in Michigan. The idea is to identify areas of broadband availability and see exactly where access and speed is lacking and overestimated,” said Quello Center Assistant Director Laleah Fernandez. “We first want to better understand possible outcomes for lack of access or limited device use for school kids in Michigan. Down the road, the goal is to work with our partners to develop a more accurate broadband map and scale up the project to close gaps through informed data-driven policy decisions and targeted investment.”
Phases of Research
Fernandez is among a team of researchers from the Quello Center working with Merit Network on Michigan Moonshot—a multi-phase plan to improve connectivity in underserved communities. Other members of the team from the MSU Department of Media and Information include Professor Keith Hampton and Johannes Bauer, the Quello Chair in Media and Information Policy.
The first phase of Michigan Moonshot includes pilot stage data collection. Researchers used a broadband speed test homework assignment in combination with paper surveys distributed in classrooms to better understand student experiences with the internet. Paper surveys ask about self-esteem, parental involvement, STEM motivation and technology skill.
Three predominately-rural school districts were chosen for the pilot phase involving about 6,000 students age 13 and older, representing over 200 classrooms within 23 schools. Starting in May 2019, Fernandez and her team distributed surveys to participating schools with an in-class assignment and student instructions to take the speed test using any device used for homework.
“We want to know if students have the internet at home, where they complete homework assignments and to what extent they use the internet for homework and other activities,” she said. “Using the paper survey in combination with a speed test app to capture speed and quality of access allows us to gather data on students with home access, and those without.”
After the survey, students were instructed to conduct the confidential speed test using an app that measures upstream and downstream speeds on devices used for homework. The goal, she said, is to assess the speed and quality of the student’s internet access from that device—rather than relying on self-reported data. The research protocols, approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at MSU, assure that all data is de-identified.
“By having students use their own device to take the speed test, we are able to capture the actual speed they experience,” she explained. “The speed test data also provides insights into whether students use a mobile device or fixed line, or combination, and where they are accessing the internet from.”
Phases of Rollout
Surveys and speed tests for the pilot project will conclude in early summer 2019. The Quello research team and their partners at Merit will use the data to develop maps to accurately identify broadband access and speeds. Researchers will also use the information to understand how internet access can affect student success by linking speed tests and survey data to student achievement, well-being, career goals, and participation in STEM related courses.
Schools participating in the pilot phase of Michigan Moonshot include Mecosta Osceola ISD, St. Clair/RESA, and the Eastern Upper Peninsula/ISD. Depending on the results, partners in Michigan Moonshot will pursue funding for a larger rollout to underserved communities statewide.
Pierrette Widmeyer of Merit Network said the project will be ongoing for the next five to six years. She said Quello was deserving of recognition for their generosity in sharing resources, time and expertise.
Among the long-term visions, Widmeyer said, is to solve the homework gap by connecting all homes in Michigan to broadband. Another is to simply improve the quality of life for Michigan residents by providing a service that’s increasingly perceived as an essential utility alongside water, heat and electricity.
“We believe the internet is a basic right,” said Widmeyer, Merit’s director of marketing and communications. “Broadband is an absolute necessity for the economic development and quality of life of our communities and citizens—starting with the success of our K-12 students.”
“But there seems to be a varying opinions on its importance or whether mobile devices serve as an adequate substitute for in-home Internet access,” she said. “People who lack stable access know that restricts what they can do. They generally make efforts to overcome those limitations, but that doesn’t mean the problem is solved.”
By Ann Kammerer