The ever-growing penetration of broadband internet access in developed countries might lead some online education providers to assume that all their students have long since dispensed with clunky narrowband modems.
Some providers can make this assumption, but the abandonment of relatively slow, dial-up internet connections is by no means universal. Much depends on the type of course and the age and status of the participant, along with their geographical location.
Providers have to ensure they do not get ahead of their participants technologically, as that would risk disenfranchising potential students or irritating some existing ones.
The University of Phoenix, one of the world’s largest providers of online education, has more than 160,000 students that have all their class materials delivered via the web.
It keeps a close eye on bandwidth issues and takes a pragmatic approach.
Adam Honea, vice-president of new product development at Apollo Group, which owns University of Phoenix Online, says: “The bandwidth of the student population is monitored and more rich media are included as students have the bandwidth to take advantage.”
Two separate programmes offered by the University of Texas at Dallas illustrate how assumptions about participants’ attitudes to technology vary according to the type of course. The global leadership executive MBA programme, founded in 1996, was one of the pioneers of the blended delivery model, offering a combination of traditional classwork and online activities.
The internet, says programme director Anne Ferrante, is used to foster interaction between the faculty and students and among the students themselves, rather than for content delivery.
These are professional people with an average of eight years work experience, and the programme’s online activities – web-based conferencing, collaboration and data sharing – emulate what a lot of the class do routinely at work.
Traditional teleconferencing has given way to web conferencing using Voice over Internet Protocol, so participants can speak, look at images and share data together. “These people have a lot of knowledge and experience in their heads. They need a way to share that. Technologies enable this,” says Ms Ferrante.
The priorities are different at UT Dallas’ global MBA online programme, which takes place almost completely online. As an extension of the university’s part-time MBA programme, it cannot insist students have the latest technology, says George Barnes, director.
Even so, he says, “we do keep ratcheting up, and we’ve found that students pretty much keep up, because their homes are better equipped or their workplaces undoubtedly are.” Thus the courses are considerably richer in terms of multimedia content than they were when the programme began in 1999.
Streaming video is increasingly being integrated within the courses, he says, but the programme also has to acknowledge that many of its students will prefer to download content to watch later, especially if they are in different timezones.
VoIP helps here, too, says Mr Barnes, as it enables lectures to be recorded easily. So a student in Asia may not want to get up in the middle of the night to participate live in a session with a guest speaker, but can listen to it later.
In general, it is the distance learning providers aiming for a global reach that have to think most carefully about their participants’ internet capabilities.
“If you are delivering globally, you become very aware of the patches of excellence and absence [in broadband connectivity],” says Matty Smith, director of learning and teaching services at Henley Management College.
Henley has 5,100 students on distance learning MBA programmes in 110 countries, 78 per cent of them outside the UK. Its approach to technology is one of playing safe, says Ms Smith. “We go for technology that utilises basic connectivity, but doesn’t require broadband. If broadband is there, that’s a bonus.” All content is delivered on CD-Roms, although the next generation of content will be in HTML, the basic internet language, so could be delivered online or burned on to a CD.
Some of the communications technologies that broadband enables would be extremely valuable for groups and individuals doing online courses, says Ms Smith, but would disenfranchise others on an ad hoc basis. She points out that the college insists its 55 full-time faculty and 250 associate tutors around the world have broadband, but often has to make exceptions.
The college uses web meetings in its online courses but the voice element is handled by traditional, rather than internet, telephony.
This is sustainable with an ISDN connection – which in the version popular in countries such as Germany is roughly twice as fast as a traditional 55 kilobit a second modem – but having a telephone against your ear while taking part in a web meeting is not an ideal learning experience, says Ms Smith.
Distance learning providers with global students have three ways to address the connectivity issues, she suggests.
They can concentrate on markets or students that have broadband, thus disenfranchising those who do not; they can go for a two-tier package; or, more radically, they could use satellite technology to distribute content or interact with students via their TV set-top boxes.
Henley is looking at this option, which Ms Smith says the academic world has not really considered yet, still being “hooked on browsers and working through standard Windows environments.”
Meanwhile, broadband penetration will continue to increase and distance-learning providers will find new ways to exploit high-speed internet access.
Vivien Hodgson, professor of networked learning at Lancaster University Management School, says extra bandwidth helps both with delivery of content and interaction and networking.
On Lancaster’s networked MA in management learning and leadership, collaboration and peer assessment can happen online or face-to-face, says Ms Hodgson.
Bandwidth is also important, she says, for research – trawling through academic databases is not easy with a narrowband connection.
Developments to come, she says, could include increased use of videoconferencing, using internet telephony.
Mr Barnes at UT Dallas says high-definition web conferencing becomes a possibility, as internet access speeds rise.
Meanwhile, his colleague Ms Ferrante looks forward to greater use of live, interactive business simulations, small versions of which are already being used on her programme.
Prof Hodgson sounds a warning note, however, about the exploitation of increasing bandwidth to provide ever-richer content.
Corporate content providers such as IBM and Intel are generating very interesting, graphically-intensive material for their own internal education needs – often, according to Prof Hodgson, for relatively mundane educational purposes such as induction courses and health and safety.
This is very expensive, she says, and requires skills that other distance learning providers may not have.
“I am not convinced this is the way forward for management education,” says Prof Hodgson. “It is more important to have the ability to work in a global business environment than to have been given access to high-calibre content.”