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Educators Need Resources That Simulate the Digital Divide

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The digital divide is the opportunity gap suffered by low-income households that lack internet access. As more learning opportunities available outside of school move online—from supplemental textbook materials to performing classwork online at home during inclement weather days—the concern is that students across the digital divide will fall further behind their better-connected peers. This specific subcase of the digital divide is called the “homework gap.”

Fortunately, the digital divide continues to narrow. According to a 2017 survey from NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), 74% of households with school-age children and annual household incomes less than $25K have internet service at home, up from 65% in a reasonably comparable survey from Pew Research Center done in 2015. A newer manifestation of the digital divide is that lower-income households tend to rely solely on tablets and smartphones for internet access. For better or worse, part of this trend is our responsibility, since these devices are integral for the creation and consumption of streaming media. The expected downside is that students bridging the digital divide will need interventions with written communication skills since tablets and smartphones lack keyboards. The good news is that those interventions are quite inexpensive: A decent Bluetooth keyboard can be had for $30. Many school districts are more aggressively intervening by adopting policies in which each student is issued an inexpensive computing device, often a Google Chromebook.

Regardless of how students source a computing device worthy for schoolwork, some of them won’t have an internet connection at home to use it on. Teachers need to be sensitive to this, and staff who support the teachers need to maintain expertise in public internet availability within their community. If a student doesn’t have access to the internet at home, educators should be aware of where the students will seek it out. Students with strong social networks can go to a friend’s house. Higher-risk students who don’t have that option will either go to the nearest public library or to a business that both provides Wi-Fi and doesn’t feel threatened by the presence of teenagers who aren’t spending a lot of money. In very small communities, the town McDonald’s may be the only option for the most vulnerable students.

Concerned educators and the professionals who support them should periodically check in on these places to make sure the internet service is of high enough quality to be usable for what the online classwork demands and that the evening shift management tolerates the presence of students. If you take representative measurements of the internet speed at these places, there are great tools available for simulating those conditions in order to test how gracefully an assignment degrades under impoverished network conditions.

Modern class activities and videos are most likely in-browser, using HTML5 technology that’s easy to inspect with the browser’s developer tools. Chrome and Firefox both have baked-in tools to throttle the bandwidth to any speed limit you want to evaluate. You can use these to simulate any internet speed, including the local Wi-Fi hotspot where the high school kids do homework or the local 3G networks for students whose home internet access is through mobile network towers.

If you need to simulate poor network connections for installed, standalone programs, there are options. Since I first started working with adaptive bitrate streaming outside of a RealNetworks framework over a decade ago, I’ve relied on a tool for Windows called NetLimiter to simulate network conditions anticipated for or reported by end users. Remarkably, NetLimiter costs the exact same as when it was first reviewed by Streaming Media in 2004, which is also the year current high school freshmen were born. NetLimiter allows you to set a maximum network ingress or egress speed for any process running on your Windows computer. On a Mac, a similar tool is called Network Link Conditioner.

[This article appears in the October 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Simulating the Digital Divide."]

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