Slow Internet is Creating an Obstacle to Students’ Academic Success

Nathan Wong
7 min readOct 13, 2020


Georgia Tech Grand Challenges 2020 Team 2 (Learning) — Ty Feeney, Trevor Goo, Sal Nasir, and Nathan Wong

Our team’s system map detailing the factors surrounding internet speed and academic performance. This same systems map is available as an interactive webpage using the link further down the article.

In this technologically savvy era, the internet has become such an integral part in our daily lives. The internet has connected and interlocked society in a way that generally increases the quality of life. However, in some cases, reliance on the internet has become a hindrance to progress. The presence of COVID-19 has especially exposed how important it is to the US’s educational system. Online classes have become a commonality across the nation, and students all over have been forced to adapt and adjust to this massive change. This change has impacted students in a multitude of ways — and has made academics for particular groups of students an absolute nightmare.

Our group has been researching how internet accessibility in US areas affects student’s academic potential and performance. First, we wanted to determine exactly how reliant schools are on the internet to help students learn. On a surface level, we can look towards the administration of AP exams during the 2019–2020 school year as well as the Common Application and Coalition systems for applying to college to see the importance of having internet access in order to take advantage of these educational opportunities. Digging deeper, we found multiple articles which suggested that a large majority of schools are very reliant on the internet today. One example is a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed 2,642 AP teachers. Of those teachers, 92% reported that the internet has a “major impact” on their ability to access teaching tools. 67% of these teachers use the internet to interact with parents, while 57% use it to interact with their students. Additionally, 79% of these teachers have students access assignments online, while 76% also require their students to submit assignments online. Clearly, there exists a heavy dependence on the internet for academics. When students do not have access to reliable internet, they are not able to perform well academically, as the majority of curriculums have online aspects. We define academic performance as measures of GPA, standardized tests, and other college entrance exams. While it is true that these may not be perfect indicators of either intelligence or knowledge of a subject, they are still a significant factor in college admission or higher education. People are also statistically more likely to make a higher exiting salary if they attain a college degree contrary to just finishing high school. The median salary of a Bachelor’s degree or higher is $54,700, while an Associate’s or lower is $34,700. Receiving a Bachelor’s degree results in about a $20,000 increase in salary, which reinforces the importance and potential impact of being accepted into a college.

A study by Michigan State University surveyed 3,258 students from 8th to 11th grade and found that students performed the following academic activities online. The corresponding percentage is the ratio of students who identified these activities as something they use the internet at school for.

  • Checking grades (90%)
  • Creating online documents (87%)
  • Doing research (85%)
  • Turning in homework (83%)
  • Working on projects with peers (82%)
  • Looking up class information (74%)
  • Watching educational videos (70%)
  • Reading books and online articles (58%)
  • Using online textbooks (53%)

See figure 1 for more elaboration on these statistics. See table 1 for more elaboration on homework completion and internet access.

Fig. 1 (above): The common academic activities students use the internet at school for. Notice that those with slower internet (defined as speeds lower than broadband) or no internet generally perform these academic activities less, potentially leading to missed avenues of communication from not emailing teachers or messaging classmates for help. Source.
Table 1 (above): The frequency of leaving homework incomplete due to lack of internet. Notice that those with slow home internet access do this “Often” 5 times more than those with fast home internet. This suggests a positively correlated relationship between internet speed and homework completion. Source.

With the majority of K-12 students today outside the classroom, along with restrictions of other internet sources, home internet speed has become a significant role in a student’s academic experience. In the midst of pandemic, more people are also in the household, decreasing the amount of bandwidth available per person. Most online curriculums use large, video formats to present information to students. In order to compensate for a normal class period, these videos are large and take time to download when paired with limited internet. Teacher resources such as live calls or third party online academic resources like Khan Academy are also not as effective with limited internet. Factors like these inhibit the online experience and ultimately lower a student’s academic performance. As evidenced by the systems map, a decline in academic performance can have all kinds of negative effects on the rest of a student’s life, such as a decreased competitiveness for top colleges, a job with a salary, and more. In addition, a study done by Michigan State University found that a lack of access to the internet leads to a lower digital skill level, as seen in figure 2. This has a whole slew of implications, many of them similar to the effects of lower academic performance. These include a lower salary, lower job resiliency, and a higher potential for that job to be automated in the future. Therefore, we see the lack of reliable internet access for students as a problem, one which has life-long implications.

Fig. 2 (above): A positive, strong correlation between digital skills and SAT/PSAT Percentile rank. As SAT percentile is a factor in college admissions, this implies that the level of digital skills a student has can have influence on what college they attend.

There are also many other factors which affect both academic performance and the presence of the internet in the household, such as the geographical location of the student and the student’s socioeconomic class. The systems map helped us to understand more closely the complex relationships surrounding this problem, and also helped us to identify potential points of information. Our complete, interactive systems map is available at the link below:

In contacting stakeholders, we first researched the 10 rural areas with the lowest average internet speed. We determined that the most important points of contact in these rural areas would be school districts — specifically, the Information Technology (IT) departments of these school districts. The IT department of these schools would have the highest likelihood of collecting data on student’s level of internet access, the initiatives of schools taken to close the digital divide such as providing mobile hotspots, and a school’s reliance on the internet for education. Below is a list of the cities that the survey was sent to along with their respective average internet speed. Note that these speeds are 4 to 8 times slower than the accepted “usable” of broadband internet speed of 25 Mbps.

  • Newcastle, California (3.7 Mbps)
  • Qulin, Missouri (4.3 Mbps)
  • Spring Hills, Kansas (4.8 Mbps)
  • Erin, Tennessee (5 Mbps)
  • Westphalia, Michigan (5.3 Mbps)
  • Sylva, North Carolina (5.4 Mbps)
  • Stevensville, Montana (5.6 Mbps)
  • Hawaiian Ocean View, Hawaii (6.2 Mbps)
  • Trenton, Florida (6.3 Mbps)
  • Nevada City, California (6.7 Mbps)

To better understand the data we aimed to collect, take a look at the survey below:

  1. What percentage of students at your school do not have internet access?
  2. What is the average level of internet access your students have? Is it below, at, or above broadband speeds of 25 Mbps?
  3. Does your school provide mobile hotspots to your students? If so, what percentage of students have one? What internet speed can these hotspots provide?
  4. Have students or parents complained that lack of internet access has prevented learning in any capacity (inability to turn in assignments, missed avenues of communication, etc.)?
  5. How has COVID impacted the reliance on the internet at your school? If so, does the increased reliance on the internet have any correlation with any other learning metric? (grades, missed assignments, ability to communicate with teachers?)
  6. Are there any school initiatives to improve internet access? If so, have they helped? (improved student motivation, students claim it helps, increased test scores or grades, etc.)
  7. Is there any additional comments about your student’s level of internet access and its impact on their school performance you would like to share?

As of now, none of the stakeholders contacted have responded to the survey. Perhaps in due time a friendly reminder could be sent out or more research can be done to find some more stakeholders to contact. In all, we feel it is very important to talk with people close to the problem to get a more grounded account of the digital divide of internet access and its effect on the academic performance of students.

The only feedback loop in our systems map is the loop between head of household income/salary → number of people in household → internet speed per user → missed avenues of communication → academic performance → caliber of higher education → and head of household income/salary. On this loop, the missed avenues of communication seems like the most likely point of intervention. Our problem space does not involve increasing household incomes, changing household composition, or intervening in the higher education system. This leaves internet speed per user, academic performance, and missed avenues of communication as primary nodes of this feedback loop. Academic performance varies by student, and efforts to manipulate it directly with 1:1 programs have had variable success. Harper and Milman (2016) have suggested that teacher-student communication, a factor in academic success, is aided by 1:1 programs.