Chris Deng (left), a 2023 Walter Payton College Prep graduate and incoming University of Chicago student, recently completed the first outside study of internet speeds and internet equity at six Chicago Public Schools. Credit: Provided

HYDE PARK — A study of internet speeds at Chicago Public Schools led by an incoming University of Chicago student could set the stage for further research into equitable internet access within the district.

Chris Deng, a 2023 Walter Payton College Prep graduate, studied internet speeds at six high schools on the West Side, North Side and central city. The study found internet access is “adequate” and “equal” across the studied schools — though not necessarily “equitable.”

Every school studied met a federal short-term goal to provide speeds of 100 kilobits per second for every person at the school. By 2019, virtually all schools nationwide had met this goal, described as a “low bar” by the Brookings Institute.

The results suggest that schools studied “currently have adequate internet for maintaining school functions and for accessing online educational resources,” according to Deng’s study.

But only 13 percent of tests run at the schools met the federal long-term benchmark, which is 1 megabit per second for every person in the school. None of the tests met a national tech directors association’s goal for large districts like Chicago Public Schools, which is 1.4 megabits per second per person.

The six studied schools all generally saw “high” raw internet speeds, but those speeds don’t account for differences in school sizes, according to the study. Individuals across the six schools did not see similar speeds, the report reads.

“The goal is for CPS schools to reach those long-term goals, but it may also be worth creating equity around schools since the larger schools, in theory, need more internet speed,” Deng told Block Club.

To read the full study, click here.

Nailah Stevenson, left, speaks at the #InternetForAll Day of Action in August 2020 as Tanesha Peeples, right, looks on. Concerned parents and activists gathered to demand the federal government ensure internet access for all children as classrooms nationwide prepared to go virtual. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Deng completed the study as part of his Advanced Placement seminar and research capstone. Nick Feamster, a University of Chicago computer science professor and researcher into Chicago’s “digital divides,” assisted and mentored Deng during the study.

“With the Collegiate Scholars Program … I got to go to UChicago during the summer and attend college classes taught by college professors,” Deng said. “When [Feamster] offered me the opportunity to do college-level research with him, it was an opportunity to learn more about what that process is like.”

As Deng learned about internet access at schools through the scholars program, he saw “there wasn’t a lot of research done in this field,” he said.

“In terms of metrics, internet speed was usually the only factor that was talked about,” Deng said. “I also realized internet literacy is important to build — you need it to find jobs, access financial services and health care resources that are online.

“It led me to the question: To what extent is Chicago Public Schools’ high school internet equitable and equal?” he said.

To district officials’ knowledge, Deng’s research is the first outside study of internet speeds at Chicago Public Schools, spokesperson Sylvia Barragan said.

The district is committed to upgrading all Chicago public schools with new connections featuring speeds of 20 gigabits per second, which is expected to exceed the tech directors association’s goals, Barragan said.

District officials also monitor how students and staff use their schools’ internet and increase schools’ bandwidth as needed, she said.

The sample size “is too small to make definitive conclusions” about internet equity across the district, Barragan said — which Deng noted in the study. But it gives district officials a chance for “further analysis and insights,” Barragan said.

The study was limited by the few responses Deng received from school administrators, to whom he contacted by email. No South Side schools responded to his requests, he said.

Deng told Block Club he’d “definitely” like to see continued research into internet access, particularly at South Side schools.

Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, speaks at a press conference promoting COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago communities of color at City Hall on Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

For now, any further research on district internet speeds will likely be taken up by other people. Deng is set to begin his first year at UChicago soon, where he wants to study computer science and molecular engineering, and he has no immediate plans to expand on his research into the district’s internet capabilities.

“I’m still interested in learning more about how computer science and policymaking intersect,” Deng said, such as how policymakers can prevent discrimination in artificial intelligence systems.

“It will be interesting learning how to use computer science to better people’s lives and how research is done with that at UChicago,” he said.

Deng hopes his first-of-its-kind report will inspire future studies on the subject — and he offered some advice for new threads to explore.

“If there was more time, it would have been good to work with CPS more closely to get around firewall problems [that prevented studying] latency and whether packet loss existed, which is also important for judging one’s experience of the internet,” Deng said.

“Also, this study only looked at a quantitative approach. You could send out surveys to check in with [how] students and teachers would rate their internet,” he said. “Even if they have the same internet speeds [as larger schools], would a smaller school rate internet higher?”

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