Internet Speed: How much do you need for online education?

Internet speedOnline education! “All you need is an Internet connection!” We often hear this description of online learning and teaching. Work and learn on the go as long as you have access to the World Wide Web. But, what kind of Internet connection do you need? They aren’t all created equal. Having reliable and consistent access to the Internet is essential and there are a lot of options to choose from, including mobile hotspots, satellite, cable, and DSL providers.

A friend of mine is making the move from face-to-face to online teaching this summer. He lives in a remote, rural location where at first glance it seemed that an Internet connection would be iffy at best. His first question for me was: “How much Internet do I need?” What speeds are ideal for participating in online courses? I had no idea.

After several conversations and a little research, the answer really is “it depends,” but there are some general guidelines you can follow to make sure you are ready to access your online classes without having to worry about staying connected.

Take an Inventory of Tasks

What will you need to do once you connect to your online courses? Internet speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and different tasks require different speeds. Reading an article posted on a website is less demanding than streaming live video, for example. If your connection speed is too slow a page may time out and never fully open. This could also cause your video feed to be so delayed that you can’t follow along.


Participating in an online class as an instructor or student includes a variety of tasks. If you aren’t sure what will be required, ask your school for more information. Many programs provide a general description on their websites. Here’s a list of basic activities:

  • Downloading and uploading files: Instructors add materials to their course sites and download student submissions, while students upload their submissions and download posted articles and presentations. All courses are going to require some of this, but it’s good to have an idea what file types and sizes you might be managing, such as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, and Word documents.
  • Watching and listening to recorded presentations: Instructors often record lectures or demonstrations that students can review online at a convenient time. Some courses also provide audio-only recordings of text-based materials. These files can be presented and played in different ways, but access can be affected by Internet speed.
  • Participating in live meetings. Synchronous, or real-time, meetings are a component of many online classes. They require the instructor and students to log in to a virtual “room” at the same time. These systems offer a wide range of communication features, such as text chat, whiteboards, and two-way audio and video. Skype, Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx, and AdobeConnect are examples of this technology and each has guidelines for connection speeds.
  • Using other web-based tools. Depending on the type of course and the subject matter covered, additional online systems may be part of the experience. Virtual labs and proctoring systems are just two examples with varying requirements for your Internet connection.

online educationRead Reviews and Recommendations

Most schools that offer online courses provide new students with a list of technical specifications. These guidelines usually include hardware, software, and Internet needs. I found trends in connection speed requirement across school websites. Here are a few examples:

  • “We recommend cable/broadband Internet with a minimum speed of 1.5 Mbps … where possible, a faster Internet speed is recommended.” – Ferris State University
  • “High-speed Internet, such as DSL or cable is strongly recommended.” – Western Kentucky University
  • “A high speed internet connection with speeds of 1.5 Mbps or higher is recommended for online courses.” – University of Alabama at Birmingham
  • “It is unlikely that a dial up connection will be fast enough to provide a satisfactory experience.” – UC San Diego

These minimums may be okay, but they could be frustrating. While most schools stop short of making higher speeds mandatory, high speed connections really are an important factor in teaching and learning success. To make the most of the flexibility that online education offers you need a fast connection, and you need it at home if at all possible. In my own experience, 10 -15 Mbps is a little more comfortable. If you’ve experienced high-speed service before, perhaps at work or on campus, you’ll want something even faster.

High-speed Internet (a.k.a. Broadband) is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as 25 Mbps. (Note: All of the speeds I’ve mentioned so far are download speeds, which are typically higher than upload speeds, and make the most impact on your overall experience.) The FCC also provides a Broadband Speed Guide to help you estimate the minimum speeds for specific online activities, such as watching HD video and sending email.

Speed can be affected by a lot of things. Are other people and devices going to be accessing your Internet service while you are online? The speed you experience can be significantly slowed if others are simultaneously using your connection. The FCC’s Household Broadband Guide includes recommendations based on the number of devices (e.g., laptops, tablets, smartphones, game consoles), and types of activities (e.g., email, web surfing, HD video streaming, online gaming) anticipated.

Shop Around

Access to faster speeds usually means more expensive fees, so it’s important to know your budget for Internet service and to compare providers and plans. If you are new to online teaching and learning you may be getting a home Internet connection for the first time. If you already have a provider it’s time to review your service and see if it meets your new needs. Online education These questions can help you assess the options:

  • What is available in your location? Search for service coverage by address using the National Broadband Map. The results include a list of companies and the estimated speeds provided by each (e.g., 25-50 Mbps). This tool is sponsored by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the FCC.
  • Does your school offer a discount? Ask your school’s technology services office about education discounts that may be offered through national and regional Internet service providers. They may be able to provide a code or share some guidance on finding an affordable plan.
  • How fast is your current service? Use a free tool like Ookla Speedtest, Speakeasy, or Bandwidth Place to check the speed of your current service if you already have an account. These are quick options that analyze your download and upload speeds, so you know what you are working with and have a frame of reference for what feels “fast” or “slow.” Keep in mind that Internet speed is not a constant – my download speeds ranged from 11.6 Mbps to 30.2 Mbps across several tests during a single day.

You may be surprised at the range of options available in your area. After many phone calls and tests with a mobile hotspot and DSL provider, my online instructor friend ended up with an affordable high-speed cable option with download speeds of over 100Mbps. This puts my connection in a downtown location to shame.

What’s the bottom line? Don’t make decisions about online learning or teaching without doing a little research about Internet access. If you aren’t doing a lot of HD streaming and online gaming, you can get away with less speed and a lower bill. My general advice is to get the fastest speed you can realistically afford, but within reason, to ensure your online education experience is a successful one.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog