Monday, June 20, 2011

High-Speed Internet Not a Requirement for Online Classes

Recently I was asked if high-speed Internet should be a requirement for students taking online courses. I suggest educational institutions not require high speed Internet, unless they have a need for speed. It would exclude students unnecessarily and may cut across anti-discrimination policies. Instead, I suggest 56 kbps would be a reasonable speed for courses generally.

Some Australian educational institutions specify "a 56K modem or broadband connection to the Internet". A few Australian institutions require students to have "Broadband connection to the Internet".

The Australian Government definition of "broadband" is a download speed of at least 256 kbit/s. This comes from the OECD.

But the Australian Universal Service Obligation currently sets the minimum data speed to be available to all citizens at just 64 kbps.

Having a low national standard for Internet access makes it difficult for an institution to require students to have a higher "broadband" speed, as it would exclude many students. It is likely that this would not be permitted under Australia law, unless the institution could show that this was really required for a specific course. The institution may have its government accreditation canceled and may be taken to court by individual students for unlawful discrimination.

Keep in mind that if you do require the students to have high speed broadband, this implies the institution is set up to provide courses to students at that speed. Consider an assignment which requires the student to submit a video on-line. A significant proportion of students will wait until a few minutes before the deadline before uploading their video to the institution's Learning Management System and then download a copy to check it was received okay. It would not take many students, each using a high speed broadband connection, to saturate the institution's links and servers.

The Australian National Broadband Network will provide a minimum of 512 kbps for remote areas using satellite, 12 Mbps for regional areas using fixed terrestrial wireless and 100 Mbps by fiber optic cable in cities.

It should be noted that even with "broadband" some remote satellite links may have so much "latency" that some interactive applicators may not be usable. Latency is the delay between the student pressing the button (or saying something) and the time the signal arrives at the other end. This may cause problems for real time audio and video links and also for e-labs, where the student is interacting with a real device in a remote lab.

Apart from speed and latency, there is also the cost to consider. Students using wireless via the mobile phone network can be paying tens or hundreds of times as much for data as fixed network users. In this case high speed could result in them running up a large bill very quickly. The cost of downloading one video may be prohibitive.

Also it needs to be kept in mind that the student may only have a low performance computer which cannot process or store large amounts of data. I normally set webinar applications to use no more than 56 kbps, even though I have a 100 mbps link in my office. Setting a low speed reduces the processing load on my low power "netbook" computer and reduces problems for people with a slow link at the other end. Most webinars work fine at 56kbps.

The approach I suggest is to ensure that:

  1. Large non-interactive files, such as e-books, videos and any special software needed, can be downloaded in advance in bulk: Students should be able to download the bulk of materials in one session at a cyber cafe at the beginning of the course for use later. Also it should be made clear to students which materials are required for the course and which are optional. All required audio and video should have a companion alternate text version for those who can't see or hear the video. Disability law requires this, but it can also be a useful alternative for those who can't download large files. This is also good teaching practice, allowing students to choose the format for their learning style.
  2. Low bandwidth options be offered for interactive parts of the course: Text based chat forums are very bandwidth efficient. Video, where offered, should be optional for real time forums, with still slides as an alternative. What should be avoided is putting prerecorded video in the real time session. Allow the students to download the prerecorded video in advance. This is also good teaching practice, allowing students to study material in advance of the interactive session.
  3. Notes in efficient formats: Web format documents should be used for course materials. The web's native HTML format should be used to prepare course notes and reading materials, where possible. Older versions of Microsoft Power-point and Microsoft Word should be avoided, as should PDF, as these create much larger files. The newer Microsoft Office and OpenOffice formats are more efficient, but care should be taken to format images as these can make documents tens or hundreds of times larger than they need be. Where possible use the content creation tools of your Learning Management System to make course notes which download efficiently.

In my view 56 kbps should be sufficient for the average course. This is fast enough for ordinary web content, for a real time "webinar" with audio and slides and to download some short low quality video.

It should be noted that video, audio and real time interaction are not necessary for a successful on-line course. I have run a university unit which required no video or audio and with no real time class interaction. The students were instead supplied with about 500 kbytes of text based notes in an e-book at the start of the 12 week course and then posted their input to a text based forum at least twice a week: .

Many teachers think that if they are not standing in front of the class talking, then they are not "teaching". This is not the case. Research shows that giving hour long talking lectures is one of the least effective ways to teach. Replicating this format on-line with hour long recorded video lectures is therefore not a good idea: it wastes bandwidth and does not significantly help educate students. Text based materials, interspersed with interactive activities is more effective. This can be supplemented by short audio and video segments, with graphics.

ps: I will be discussing images and video for on-line education at the Australasian National University in Canberra, 29 June 2011.

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