Get More Internet: Bandwidth for Virtual Teaching and Learning

Results of Jen's speed test, about 85 mbs down and 8.5 mbs up.
My speed test results when no one is home but me.
We are about to go back to school and most of us are about to do that in virtual teaching modules. (It's the 5th month of pandemic 'quarantine' for those keeping track.) 

Unlike the spring, my district, and state are pushing for a much larger number of live teaching minutes. For most of us, teachers and students, this means many more hours a day in virtual meetings, mostly via Zoom or Google Meet. 

Everyone is operating with the assumption that this technology is just going to work, that all kids and teachers will be able to get and stay online in video calls for several hours a day. We are even starting to see rules posted that students “must be on camera” during class. We are assuming that we can use these calls as proxies for attendance. I even heard a principal say to mark a student tardy if they leave the call early. It’s not that easy. 

I’m not talking about the social and emotional challenges of being online. There are other excellent posts about that. See "Cameras Be Damned" by Karen Costa.

I’m talking about the technical challenge of having 3-4 (or more) family members zooming at the same time. Each of those calls uses the internet and the bandwidth to our homes just can’t keep up. I’ll explain. 

There are two different internet speeds that come with your internet service, download and upload. Your download speed is typically very high. (See screenshot above.) This provides all the data you need to watch your streaming video services. Your upload speed, though is typically much lower. Our homes don’t generally upload a lot of data very fast, except when we are on a video call. Also, our internet speeds can fluctuate depending on the demand in the neighborhood. More on that in a minute.

I live with a tech savvy husband and two internet hungry kids. We have a great tech set up, and I am really lucky that way. My husband knows how to monitor our internet use in real time and rearrange the packet allocations so that every service gets what it needs to run correctly. We have an advanced networking set up and he knows how to optimize it.

In March, he started watching my internet usage while I was teaching on Zoom. He was able to show me that watching a zoom meeting with my camera off used about 1-2 mbps, but teaching with my camera on and talking could use up to 5 mbps. (mbps = megabytes per second.)

In the spring, it wasn’t unusual for my whole family to be online at once, but it wasn't a daily occurrence because there was less live teaching for me and my kids. Still we saturated our upload and calls began to have issues with audio and video quality. “Could you say that again?” became a common phrase. The residential service we pay for should have an upload speed of 10 mbps, but because of greater demand in our city in March, we were generally getting about 5 mbps at our house. So, if I was teaching, no one else could be on a call. 

Realizing that would not fly, my husband went to our internet provider and added another line of internet service to our house. We now have a residential line and a business line, and yes, that is costing us an extra $70 a month. This means he was able to give me some dedicated upload bandwidth and parcel out the rest to our kids and himself. (Again, he is super techy and I am super lucky.)

So what does this mean for teachers and students? It means there probably isn’t enough bandwidth in most homes to get everyone on a video call at the same time. It means kids will have to turn off their cameras to reduce their usage and stay on the call. It means you need to know how to test your internet speed and teach your students how to test theirs. It means that if there are several kids online at the same time, (ahem learning pods?) some or all of those students will have issues with their connection.

Click "Run Speed Test"

So what can you do? Well, reading this post is a start. Now you are forewarned. Also, you can check your own internet speed right now. Do a search for [speed test] and click the blue button.

Figure you'll need upload speeds of at least 2-3 mbps per student in your home, and 4-5 mbps per adult (if the adults are teaching or leading meetings.) For my family of four, we need at least 12-14 mbps to get everyone on separate video calls at the same time. As you can see from the top screen shot, we don't have that, even in summer when neighborhood demand is less. This is why we now have that second line of internet.

So, if your students don't have enough upload speed, they will need to turn off their camera, or they may have a hard time getting on the call, or the audio may cut out often for them and they will miss what you say, or they may have the call cut out on them and yes, it will look like they left early. Our new challenge as educators is knowing when to give grace for legitimate technical difficulties and when to hold students accountable. I lean heavily toward the give grace side because I understand the technical challenges, but I really worry that students will be unfairly penalized for technical issues that are not their fault.

Go run your own speed test. And, if you have the privilege to do so, call your internet provider and figure out a way to get more bandwidth if you need to. Educate your colleagues about the issue, and support your students as best you can.

If you are having a lot of virtual meetings with students this fall, you may appreciate this post about the $70 worth of gear (headset, green screen, and lighting) that makes my life on Zoom much better.