Modern Prototyping Techniques Final Project: Milestone 3

Group 4: Hope Dohner, Aishwarya Shivkumar, Julia Petrich, Rebecca Radparvar, Hemalathaa Poovayarkarasi Subramanian, David Ott


Even in the United States, there is a staggering lack of high speed connectivity in rural parts of the country. It is expensive for internet providers to establish the infrastructure for high speed bandwidth in remote areas and individuals in those areas have low demand because of low digital literacy and because they aren’t convinced of the value the Internet could bring to their lives. Increasing the digital literacy of students aims at bringing the knowledge and demand into rural and low income households. The hope is that beginning to democratize access to current, engaging, and customizable lessons and curricula will help to break the cycle of poor digital literacy in rural and lower-income communities.

Goals & Purpose

Target Group

Our project targets educators (and through them their students) in schools in rural areas in Western Pennsylvania that lack access to high-speed internet. We aim to provide educators with a platform of tools to create enhanced internet content suited for a low-speed internet infrastructure. To expedite our research and exploration, schools in lower-income areas in Western Pennsylvania will be used as a case study and as super users for our planned solution.

Problem Statement

There are a large proportion of low-income families in rural and urban areas in the United States who lack internet connectivity in the home. While there are a number of programs to aid these families in adopting, using, and accessing the internet, many of these families still choose not to. We propose that exposing students to the Internet in an academic capacity, students will improve their digital literacy while accessing and learning from academic content. We hope to create a ripple effect which extends to home and community values. We envision families adopting the Internet as they know they have someone at home is who digitally literate and can derive value from the use of the Internet. We would like to create a model by which a platform such as the one we are proposing will change the practices in these rural communities, helping them see value in connectivity, and ultimately increasing the demand for connectivity in their areas.

Solution Proposal

We propose the following solution: an academic platform for teachers and other educators to create, share, and adapt open-source educational content that can thereby be disseminated within the community and among students. Teachers would be able to develop a combination of interactive and static content on this platform to achieve traditional academic objectives while providing opportunities for individual growth in digital literacy. Our platform will be specifically designed to accommodate lower bandwidth users to democratize access to the content, while still providing incentive for higher bandwidth users to utilize the platform.

To demonstrate our solution, our deliverable will be a plan that outlines the desired features of the educational platform and scenarios of its use. We will conduct extensive research through academic study, interviews with teachers and subject-matter experts in the field of education, and other design research methods to flesh out and substantiate our list of features for the platform. We will also include user-tested low-fidelity prototypes for the educational platform. Our prototypes will serve the purpose of validating our assumptions and testing hypotheses, and at the same time, will move our concept toward a product development phase. Finally, we propose include a roadmap for the future of our platform, detailing how we envision it changing practices and how we imagine it might evolve as communities begin to develop greater connectivity.


Assumptions & Grouping

We each came into this project with our individual biases, and we all had done preliminary research on individual topics. We found that it was necessary to explicitly state the assumptions we each had going into this project, deciding which assumptions should be challenged or explored and which assumptions we could base our project on. We brainstormed assumptions, taking fifteen minutes to write as many assumptions as we could onto sticky notes. We then presented our assumptions to the group and discussed them. We then affinity-mapped the notes based on categories that emerged from what we had generated.

Affinity mapping our assumptions

This exercise was useful not only in recognizing and establishing all our assumptions, but also in stimulating ideation of creative solutions and experiments to the problems we identified. The results are summarized in Table 1 and Table 2 and described as follows:

We have defined “assumptions” as biases, beliefs, and conceptions we believe are either justified from our in-depth secondary research (see Secondary Research section for more complete justifications) or are reasonable assumptions that are necessary to keep the project within scope. “Hypotheses” are assumptions that we realized needed to be further explored and justified moving forward. In order to gain further insight into these uncertainties, we used findings from SME interviews and user research. We acknowledged that we may not be able to address or answer all given the time constraints of the project.

Note: as the project progresses, we may identify further assumptions and hypotheses, and the following tables may not only contain assumptions/hypotheses from the assumption generating and affinity-mapping session.

Feature Identification

Moving from the idea generation to conceptualization phase required that we identify preliminary features that such an educational platform may need to have in order to meet the goals of the project. In each category, we have listed features in the order of their significance; from “must-haves” to “nice-to-haves.”


  • The content management system would allow for easy access of various low-bandwidth file-editing tools to support creating interactive course content, presentation, quizzes, worksheets, etc.
  • Ability to copy and adapt version-control contented (a GitHub model)
  • Bring in sponsored content from educational publishers
  • Collaboration with existing online educational platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, etc. to leverage their high-bandwidth content for low-bandwidth access
  • Include career oriented courses in addition to academic courses
  • Mobile and desktop functionality
  • Multi-lingual and ability to translate between different languages


  • Separate user profile for students and teachers
  • Collaborate using messaging systems between teacher, students and parents


  • Visualize trending lessons
  • Rewards system like upvoting/commenting on the content


  • Detect bandwidth and adapt content
  • Protect content
  • Data analytics to understand more about usage and improving the content

Secondary Research

Despite the proliferation of the internet and online educational content for students, approximately 55% of children, under the age of 10, in low-income families are unable to access the Internet from home. [5] This gap in interconnectivity has been translated to what the United States government called the ‘homework gap’ or “the widening of the achievement gap, denying hard working students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.” [5]

The FCC in 2013 established a standard of 100 Kbps per student, and by 2015, 77 percent of school districts met this standard. However, rural schools lack access to high-speed fiber and pay more than twice as much for bandwidth. In a growing world of personalized online curricula, internet-based research, and online testing, this severely restricts rural students from educational opportunities their urban counterparts may enjoy. [10]

In order to bring low bandwidth content to schools without access to large bandwidth, it might be more efficient to convert high bandwidth content to low bandwidth content instead of creating new content. One workaround to a high bandwidth restriction is compression. There are technologies that significantly reduce the size of web pages and elements sent to the user’s browser [11]. Compression technologies can increase browsing speed and loading times. It will reduce file size and in turn might degrade the quality of images. Even though image degradation will occur, browsing speed will increase. Compression is able to reduce bandwidth data up to 80% with higher graphic compression.

Another method is intelligent caching. This means reloading content only when it has changed [11]. Most browsers will reload automatically and repeatedly to update content even if nothing has changed. But intelligent caching speeds up web browsing. Since less content is being transmitted there will be faster page load times. Another strategy is to host a local server in a central location such as a school that is responsible for downloading a majority of the content and then users can access this content locally without using bandwidth. A CMU Professor, Jon Peha recommended:

If I have no technology at all, then I go back to traditional methods. The printing press is still a good technology. If I have computers but no Internet, then there are technical options. For example, there are interesting programs to bring databases of data to African schools. Just ship DVDs full of data. No Internet needed. If I have Internet but it is very slow or very expensive, there is technology for caching. For example, if every student is watching the same MOOC class, it can be downloaded over the internet to a school cache just once, instead of once by every student.

All of these strategies are feasible with common connection types such as Mobile Broadband, Satellite & Fixed Wireless, WiFi, DSL & Cable, Dial-up. The Education SuperHighway initiative helped us quantify the lack of Internet access in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas and to pinpoint the areas we could focus on for user testing. Governor Tom Wolf is a strong advocate for high speed Internet and calls it a basic necessity for 21st century learning. We have evaluated the current status of Internet in Pennsylvania based on factors like connectivity, fiber connections, Wi-Fi and affordability of the Internet connection.

Some numbers:

  • 367869 Students require higher bandwidth access to the Internet to meet the minimum connectivity goal.
  • Currently, 87% school districts are maintaining the minimum connectivity goal of 100 kbps per student. That gives us a significant number of students we can impact with our initiative.
  • There is an extremely apparent divide between internet access in rural and urban areas. In Rural America, close to 39 percent of the population lacks access to 25/4 MBps, while only 4 percent of the urban population lacks the the access to internet connectivity of similar speeds.

SME Interviews

Judy Brooks, Eberly Center: Ms. Brooks’ role at the Eberly Center is looking at what the community’s educational needs are and matching technology to learning and teaching goals. In this she and her colleagues model what faculty are trying to do, make functional mockups, pilot, deliver, and support this content. The scope of her work ranges synchronous and asynchronous tools and inside and outside of the classroom technology. For faculty at CMU, change is hard; it takes a lot of thought and a lot of time which they don’t have much of. “Time,” she said, “is the biggest hurdle.”

We spent most of the interview discussing OLI (the Open Learning Initiative) which was started in the early 2000s as a research project. The main research questions were to figure out how to best construct online learning. The researchers aimed to find out how to make learning more efficient and effective, with shorter time cycles and a more quality learning experience. OLI is a continuously evolving project. Ms. Brooks and her team are currently working to develop more peer interactions and feedback into the platform as well as create WYSIWYG authoring tools for faculty and other instructors to create and adapt content.

From OLI, the researchers have learned that a blended approach with pre-exposure to concepts online prior to class time made it possible to teach the content just as well in half the time. While MOOCs tend to have a lot of drop-off and issues with sustained motivation, OLI shows how that model can be used in a blended context. OLI continues as a research project: a platform for additional questions and study and a platform for investigation. In their next steps, they also hope to integrate pedagogical design into the authorship tools. How can instructors articulate learning objectives better? How can they state where students need to be at the end and work back from there? What we the assessment be? What kind of practice therefore do students need to have? What kind of exposure to content? That way, extraneous content can be eliminated. Learning management systems cannot compete on this level, since tools are not integrated enough, which cause a cognitive glitch and prevents users from wanting to jump all of those hurdles.

Marvin Sirbu, CMU Professor: Dr. Sirbu is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Engineering and Public Policy, and Economics. He leads a research program in Communications Policy. In 1989, he founded CMU’s Information Networking Institute for telecommunications, computing, business, and policy studies. Dr. Sirbu gave us valuable insight on the lack of Internet in rural areas. He cited two main reasons for a lack of Internet. The first is that it is not available. The technology is too expensive, and there is no economic incentive for providers to install infrastructure that makes internet accessible. The second is that people do have access and choose not to use it. Some people see no value in it, can’t use it, or can’t afford it even if it is available for purchase. In the first case, you’d have to provide more incentives for the vendors. He continued to say that a lot of people do have cell phone with broadband but no other way to access. He posed the question as to whether this is a reasonable substitute, noting that cell phone broadband has had volume caps in the past. Dr. Sirbu emphasized the problem of video data. He said that 70% of bits received in the home is video. Video dominates bandwidth usage and most pages these days have embedded video, making it hard to surf the web at low bandwidth. Volume caps also contribute to bandwidth problems as companies continue to set them.
 Dr. Sirbu pointed us to a few specific cases related to education. A couple of years ago, North Carolina attempted to run fiber to all schools to try and offer courses like AP Calculus via video instead of hiring teachers. They were able to make good use of broadband for courses when they were unable to justify putting a teacher there. Dr. Sirbu also said Pittsburgh made a deal with Comcast to centralize servers in Southside for all schools. In this scenario, the schools share licenses for software and don’t require multiple people to maintain separate locations. Finally, he described a school program set up by a CMU research group in Portugal. A small number of schools were ‘wired-up’ with Internet, but the research showed that more Internet lead directly to worse academic performance. The lack of adequate training led to non-educational activity and hurt the students’ learning. However, the study did show that families were then much more likely to sign up for internet in their homes.

Dr. Jeffrey H. Reed, Outside Internet Expert: Dr. Reed is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and the Founding Director of Wireless@Virginia Tech. It is the largest and most comprehensive university wireless research group. His research focuses on merger evaluation, network neutrality, and band planning. We stumbled upon his work with Wireless@Virginia Tech while doing preliminary research and thought it would be valuable to talk to him to gain a greater understanding of the internet landscape of rural areas in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The article we found was titled “Researchers seek ways to bring high-speed Internet to more homes and businesses in rural Virginia” from 2014. The article talked about how many families and businesses in rural Virginia don’t have ready access to high-speed Internet. Wireless@Virginia Tech aims to use new technologies for high-speed Internet to reach more homes and businesses. The project is trying to provide higher performance, and cost effective broadband in areas where it is unavailable. It will also generate jobs to manage and support these mobile stations [7].

Our interview with Dr. Reed started with a bit of an overview of his research area, work with Wireless@Virginia Tech, and a high-level take on the internet state of rural areas. He indicated that the rural issue comes up a lot and each area is unique needing different solution. Dr. Reed was confident that local governments don’t know what they’re doing but said that there is some developing technology on the horizon that can help. We talked more specifically about education and the impact low bandwidth has in these rural areas. Dr. Reed stated that there is a huge problem with homework. He continued to say that kids use Google a lot, and if you don’t have it at home, it’s a huge disadvantage. This creates a big divide in education even within schools. The sociological perspective shows that some families don’t want kids to have the Internet, and in some cases they just can’t afford it. In reference to a platform with low bandwidth content, Dr. Reed confirmed that you could address classes properly even with low bandwidth content. Video is, of course, high bandwidth but there are ways to compress or even get away without video. He also ended by recommending user testing directly through the schools. From his experience, he said that the schools were accommodating and amiable.

Juliet Squire, Bellwether Education Partners: Ms. Squire agreed the assumptions we’ve made regarding the infrastructure available in rural schools were fairly accurate. She suggested that Education Superhighway would be a good resource to quantify the lack of access to internet in rural areas. It was also her opinion that online courses in rural areas would be a good way to increase interest and quality of education. In areas which lack fast enough internet for video content, she asserted her belief that online courses without interactive content are not as well received as the ones with it.

She directed us to Opportunity Culture, an initiative to increase student access to high impact teachers which aims at improving the quality of rural teachers. She also validated another assumption of rural schools being smaller, generally only 1–2 sections of each grade in an area, hence sharing of material among teachers is difficult.

Teachers Pay Teachers is another resource she thought would be useful for us while going ahead with our deliverable. It is a platform where teachers can pay other teachers for better lesson plans than the ones they currently use. She said a platform is a good starting point but more than the material sharing, a good focus which is more difficult but perhaps more effective is mentorship-based support.

User Research


Our survey results are still rolling in, but so far we have verified the following assumptions:

  • Teachers are low on time
  • They have to answer to a number of stakeholders (students, school, community, etc.)

… and have learned the following:

  • The value of technology in the classroom is student engagement
  • Teachers have few (if any) formal, open, free networks for communication
  • Teachers are concerned about students using the internet to play games or for social media



We interviewed a former teacher, who has taught middle school, high school, and college classes in musicianship, clarinet, band, art history, western music history, and jazz history. When she was teaching, she was unaware of the many tools (e.g. videos, music streaming, etc.) that were at her disposal. She even was shy when using PowerPoint, saying that she had never learned these tools well and continues to be frustrated with learning them. She expressed preference for an in-person style of tutorial to learn new software. More importantly, she mentioned that she liked to use variety (lectures, examples, exercises, etc.) in the classroom to keep students engaged. She recalls spending 3–4 hours every day just crafting a syllabus and lesson plans for a new class because she didn’t have advice from other teachers, nor did she have example syllabi for the subject material. She expressed strong interest and willingness to collaborate on material with other teachers, adding that she learned how to teach and learned new methods and techniques when she did a collaborative learning-to-teach program with other music teachers.

Local Charter Schools

We spoke to three staff members from two local Charter Schools in order to better understand their current technological capabilities, usage, and possible needs.

First, we spoke with a School Psychologist and Special Education Teacher. In her school, devices are used to teach technological literacy just as much as they’re used to access the content these devices provide. The school has moved to include a ‘Technology’ special for this main purpose. Additionally, this instructor spoke about how teachers at her school currently use Google Docs to collaborate on content for their classrooms but found many gaps in Google Docs currently functionality. She noted that she disliked that changes were automatic and that there are problems with versioning when teachers collaborate on or edit one another’s work.

Second, we interviewed the Principal and the Head of Technology of the Charter School. Many of their sentiments were similar to the original teacher interviewed. Once interesting divergence was their call for a specific tool — a dashboard to integrate all of their software, content, and communication. The head of software noted that the teachers and administrators just have far too many places to store content and access content.

In both instances, the schools had high bandwidth but noted that there were a fair number of students who didn’t have connectivity at home and that they were working to bridge that divide. Both schools also had a large percentage of low-income students in their districts. Something interesting was that minimally connected students ‘at least had an iPhone’ or similar device at home which they could access the internet with — a possible opportunity area to explore moving forward. Additionally, both schools noted they were working towards, or would like, a 1:1 student to device ratio in the coming years and that they would like to get to the point where students can take these devices home with them.


We devised a collaging activity as an extended interviewing method that helped teachers think about how they plan lessons and help them get a little more speculative about how they would like to plan lessons in an ideal future. We conducted this activity with two participants, Grandon Voorhis, a high school science and biology teacher and Tess Wilson, an educator and library sciences student who has experience teaching in rural Central America.

Mr. Voorhis’ collages

We conducted Mr. Voorhis’ collaging activity remotely. Today, Mr. Voorhis draws from past lesson plans and turns to physical sources first. He indicated things like textbooks, journals, and standardized tests. This is where he knows he will find credible and pertinent material. He then drafts a general framework of the content for his lesson. Mr. Voorhis also revealed he will sometimes look to online and external sources. Sometimes he happens upon interesting videos or ideas. He draws some ideas and techniques from discussions with other teachers. After this research he brings everything together and boils it down to a more digestible, streamlined form. Then he presents his lesson plan and pays real attention in class to what engages students and what doesn’t. He tends to have a nice back and forth with his students throughout the year to get good feedback.

The same activity was done with the prompt switched to how he would ideally plan and teach lesson plans in the future. He insists that he would definitely maintain a lot of the old methods. He stands by his answered methodology for the previous prompt saying it is, “tried and true”. However, he did go on to say you can do more. He admitted he is not perfect and other people certainly have better ideas that he could benefit from. Mr. Voorhis continued to say that likewise other teachers might be able to benefit from his experience. He said, “Recording, sharing, and accepting outside content are all important. It could improve education a lot.” He believes that when everyone works together in a collaborative environment education improves.

Ms. Wilson shared her experiences teaching in rural Central America. In her role she had limited material and time to plan and often planned in spaces that were not conducive to planning, like the corner of the cafeteria. She worked with another teacher, which was good because the other teacher was the normal teacher and knew the kids and the material. In this way, the pair were able to share resources. Much of the teaching looked a lot like back-and-forth dialogue but there was also a lot of instruction and group work. After lessons, Ms. Wilson emphasized that there was alway a lot of paperwork and grading hand-written worksheets.

In the future, Ms. Wilson imagined that she would have the time and resources to plan really carefully and to be able to engage with current events and things that are happening in the community through her lessons. She imagined having strong networks (such as the internet but also to and within the surrounding community). She hoped to be able to engage in multimedia education. One thing she recognized during her time teaching abroad was that many community members did not realize what an asset multimedia could be in the classroom; there were just no advocates for it. Ms. Wilson would creating a warm and exciting environment in her classroom, one that encourages inquiry, spontaneity, and learning beyond the classroom, through use of technology or otherwise.

Validated Hypotheses

Schools have the basic infrastructure and time to support this cause.

  • From our survey we found that even some more rural schools have access to desktop computers and wired Internet connection at the least.

Educators have enough, baseline digital literacy to access and use the content.

  • Many educators noted that they and their staff were extremely digitally literate and use digital content to create lessons plans.

Schools & educators are willing to share lesson plans and academic resources with each other.

  • While teachers do want to have some control over their content and their version of their lessons, they were open to and excited by the idea of sharing content.
  • Most teachers already do some form of informal sharing.

Educators want to to bring in new content and make the class interactive.

  • Most educators noted they like to keep their content fresh and are constantly updating their content.
  • Some teachers also brought up the desire to teach their students more about current events or information that is relevant to today.

Lingering Questions

  1. How can we make low-speed content engaging for students?
  2. How can we incentivize active participation by teachers with high bandwidth internet access?

Next Steps

  1. Develop a roadmap for how our product would shift community values and demand for connectivity.
  2. Create community personas/detailed scenarios of use.
  3. Wireframe and detail functions based on low bandwidth constraints.

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, Monica, and Andrew Perrin. “13% of Americans Don’t Use the Internet. Who Are They?” Pew Research Center. Fact Tank, 07 Sept. 2016. Web.
  2. Bowling, Brian. “High-speed Internet Access Lags behind in Less Lucrative Areas of Pennsylvania.” TRIB Total Media, 11 Jan. 2017. Web.
  3. Emily Guerin Feb. 3, 2014 From the Print Edition Print Share Subscribe Donate Now. “Rural Americans Have Inferior Internet Access.” Rural Americans Have Inferior Internet Access (The Broadband Blues). High Country News, 03 Feb. 2014. Web.
  4. Holmesemail, Allan. “White House Report Says Lack of Competition Barrier to Broadband Adoption.” Center for Public Integrity. Center for Public Integrity, 22 Sept. 2015. Web.
  5. Howard, Alexander. “White House Wants To Close Homework Gap.” The Huffington Post., 16 July 2015. Web.
  6. ‘'}], [{title: ‘Mike Maciag’ Url:. “Broadband Expands into Rural America, But How Many Will Adopt?” Governing. Governing, Nov. 2014. Web.
  7. Kaiser, Kelly. “Researchers Seek Ways to Bring High-speed Internet to More Homes and Businesses in Rural Virginia.” News | Virginia Tech. N.p., 24 Feb. 2014. Web.
  8. Marwell, Evan. “2016.” EducationSuperHighway. EducationSuperHighway, 17 Jan. 2017. Web.
  9. “Offline and Falling Behind: Barriers to Internet Adoption.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company, Sept. 2014. Web.
  10. Severson, Kim. “Digital Age Is Slow to Arrive in Rural America.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2011. Web.
  11. “Speed up Web Browsing and Reduce Bandwidth Consumption.” How to Reduce Bandwidth Usage | Increase Browsing Speed, Client Server Solution. Propel Technology, n.d. Web.
  12. West, Darrell M., and Jack Karsten. “Rural and Urban America Divided by Broadband Access.” Brookings. Brookings, 29 July 2016. Web.

Draft Outline of Final Report

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