Conference sneak preview

Extending & Accelerating Equitable & Sustainable Access to eLearning by Radically More Efficient Use of Internet Connections

Roger Clark, Head of Education Technology, ApplianSys.

The digital divide between the connected and the unconnected remains. It has widened since the global pandemic. But when it comes to eLearning, there are surprising parallels in the connectivity problems faced by schools everywhere – both urban and rural, in both affluent and disadvantaged areas, on all continents.

In January I returned to Washington DC to once more meet with the US Federal Communication Commission, and to share data and insights about the schools caching they are funding. As we discussed the connectivity challenges still facing US schools, I was also able to share news of an exciting development: in collaboration with GlobalEd and the NCPSA Chair of the Commission for Distance Education & Technology, a project to design new “C.O.R.E. Standards & Efficiency Strategies for Meaningful Connectivity” is underway.

Drawing on an analysis of 20 years of teaching & learning internet traffic data from thousands of schools, universities and corporate learning environments, the ground-breaking research, analyses and proposals certainly piqued the FCC’s interest.

Collaborating to see how we can make a difference, we are working together to develop guidance and contextual strategies for radically more efficient use of whatever connectivity schools have. In objectively defining the guidance, analytical tools recommended standards and training modules required, all schools will benefit, both well-connected and remote. There are clearly lessons for the education systems of other countries that are much earlier in their eLearning journey.

Why efficiency?

For learning environments, prevailing connectivity strategies have been all about building bandwidth capacity and not at all about driving up the efficient use of those connections. But the impact of not considering the Efficiency side of the equation is bigger than we think.

How we treat energy efficiency in our own homes provides an object lesson in how we consider the context of efficient connectivity.

Over the last 18 months, the energy crisis in Europe has seen costs spiral, impacting every household. With annual energy bills rising over 350%, several friends and colleagues have shared with me how they’ve personally undertaken in-depth analysis on how best to avert the worst.

We’re not just talking about turning the heating down a degree or two; no, instead they have painstakingly reviewed all the advice, from every source. And there’s plenty of it. But be it solar power, ethanol, switching to electric cars, new heat pump technology, improving insulation, or using batteries to store power for use at night… one thing has been central to their analysis: their circumstance.

Context is king

Not every home will benefit from every solution. With electric cars, what’s the minimum mileage that makes the investment worthwhile? Are they at home in the day to exploit solar-generated power or will storage be needed, and what cost of the storage? Will cutting electricity usage make enough of a difference in a gas-fuelled household? Will the cost of heat pump technology be recouped within an appropriate time – will relocation curtail investment return?

To keep a lid on costs these friends have used every available analytical tool to review the whole range of advice and have shaped their strategies for assessing required capacity and improved efficiency. Each solution holds the promise of impact, but not for all: outcomes are contextual

The driving force behind these energy efficiency analyses has been rising costs and impending pain, with plenty of available options, data and advice to tap into. But that’s a whole lot of work to do to assimilate and contextualise. The alternative is to turn down the central heating and hope for the best.

Hidden bandwidth crisis

The parallels with analysing bandwidth capacity in schools are obvious.  

The cost of connectivity is a serious concern to all schools’ systems:

  • Remote & rural schools, plus those in low-bandwidth nations, still face highly expensive internet costs that hit hardest. 
  • Even in the metropolitan US where the cost per Mbps has been dropping, usage is rising so fast it isn’t resulting in lower overall budgets. 
  • Some emerging economies cite low-cost internet bandwidth, but the wider picture often includes contention ratios that are unworkable for teaching & learning and rural areas that don’t have equitable access or any access at all.

The prevailing connectivity strategy has focused on building out capacity; driving up the efficiency of bandwidth use has rarely been considered in detail:

  • Where funding is available for connectivity, like in the US, public schools are being inoculated against the pain of rising costs because someone else is paying the bill – but this is not sustainable. 
  • Where more bandwidth is either unavailable or unaffordable, teachers have been in a situation where they simply must make do. 

Inability to audit

In the connectivity space, there are options beyond bandwidth upgrades – filtering, traffic-shaping, caching, and offline working. Yet schools and education authorities to date have not invested time or intellect in connectivity efficiency audits.

That’s because no comprehensive guidance exists. There remains a severe lack of advice about the role Efficiency plays in the ‘Meaningful Connectivity’ that the learning environment demands.

For technology teams to assimilate and contextualise without suitable tools or guidance it becomes very hit-and-miss. Instead, the fallback is to add more bandwidth and hope for the best. Or, unable to do so, to simply accept the lowering of expectations for digital transformation.

This is why the prospect of being able to recommend Strategies for Connectivity Efficiency holds so much promise. Applicable to all learning environments, regardless of location, bandwidth, or budget, it could be the game-changer that enables schools to include Context in their connectivity strategies and, for the first time, deliver sustainability and equity in online learning.

Not just the FCC, but World Bank, GIGA and national education and funding bodies worldwide will want to know how their schools can do far more with less.

I’ll be presenting the “C.O.R.E. in Context” model at eLearning Africa 2023 and look forward to discussing your context further in Dakar.

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