Best Practice

Online Learning and Broadband

We all have hobbies. Mine include digital photography, video gaming and decrying the state of Irish broadband provision. In this blogpost, I attempt to link the three to explain why we need to be prudent in our design, development and delivery of online and blended courses in UCC.

Before continuing I should mention that I live in a rural town in Ireland with a population of almost five thousand as per the 2011 census. The fastest broadband connection I can get currently is 10mb/s over a landline.  This certainly better than the 1mb/s connection I received over landline while living in a more rural setting a few years ago.

With 1mb broadband online gaming was impossible.  The network response rate (ping ) was much too slow.  A system update or game update of a few gigabytes would typically take days meaning the device and/or the game were unavailable for use. With 10mb broadband, online gaming is technically possible but occasionally buggy and updates take hours rather than days.

With 1mb/s broadband uploading pictures to social media or online storage even when heavily compressed to reduce file size was not viable. 1mb/s broadband denotes download speed whereas the upload speed necessary to send pictures to Facebook or Instagram was 100kb/s at most. With 10mb/s broadband, it is possible to upload photos but again not at full resolution. When you are adding photos to Facebook or online storage other broadband users in the house will suffer outages and major reductions in service quality.

What I have described here are impediments to my hobbies – the stereotypical ‘first world problems’ some may say. However, poor broadband is inconvenient when it impacts on a hobby but it when it impacts on your learning and keeping up with a curriculum it is wholly unacceptable. Given the fraught negotiations and last-minute reversals by Eir around the National Broadband Plan, we cannot realistically expect the standards of broadband provision to improve quickly. What steps can we take in UCC to support online and blended learning students who will only intermittently if ever experience the speedy LAN and Wifi connections we enjoy in UCC?

We need to make it apparent to prospective online and blended learning students from the outset what technical requirements they have to meet in terms of equipment, software and broadband connection speeds. During the programme approval process, this is included in the Recruitment Statement section of the Full Programme Approval form. The information will then populate the Course Practicalities section on the programme web pages. Here is an example of one which was included in a recently approved undergraduate programme:

This programme will be delivered predominantly online. As such there are specific technical requirements that you need to meet.

You will need access to a laptop or desktop (either Mac OS or Windows) running a relatively recent operating system (Windows 7, 8, 8.1, 10 or Mac OSX 10.8, 10.9, 10.10). Tablets and smartphones are not officially supported by UCC.

You will need access to a reliable broadband connection with at least 2MB download speeds. You can test your broadband or 4G speeds by visiting http://www.speedtest.net  

You must have a modern web browser installed. The most reliable options for use with UCC online learning are Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. Download and installation instructions will be provided.

You must have Java and Flash Runtimes installed. Download and installation instructions will be provided.

You will require an Office suite of software (Microsoft Office 2003 or later or equivalent) and a PDF reader (preferably Adobe Acrobat Reader XI or later). Please note that registered UCC students have complimentary access to Office 365, Google Apps for Education and SPSS.

 

The laptop and desktop specification coupled with the runtime requirement are standard for all online and blended learning courses in UCC. Blackboard, our institutional VLE does not support mobile to the standard we can officially support. Other disciplines and programmes may have different requirements which should be detailed and included by the programme team at the curriculum design and programme approval stage. The inclusion of video conferencing will increase the broadband speeds (both upload and download) required to participate in a course. Online exams require a reliable and persistent connection (ideally LAN rather than Wifi). If assignments require bandwidth-intensive activities such as uploading video presentations, uploading practice demonstrations,  real time screen-sharing then this will impact on the upload and download speeds required.

Take uploading video as an example: each minute of recorded high definition footage is circa 130mb and circa 375mb in 4k resolution. A student recording of a 20minute presentation for an assignment would be uploading at least a 2.6gigabyte file. On the 1mb/s connection I mentioned earlier that would take days: days of the laptop/ desktop remaining on and hopefully connected to the internet; days of no one else in the household being able to do anything else online. On a 10mb/s connection, you would be looking of an overnight (8+ hours) upload. A momentary drop in broadband signal and the entire process would have to be started again.

There is a symbiotic relationship between learning activities and assessment type and the broadband speeds required. We need to be cognisant of this to ensure that our incoming students are forewarned and prepared.

Reasonable accommodations can be made. Where possible downloadable resources can be made available (PDFs, documents, ebooks) for students who due to the necessities of their full-time employment do not have access to the internet at all times. Currently, I have the good fortune to be the instructional designer on an interdisciplinary BSc in Paramedic Studies in UCC. There is a committed student cohort who provide timely and telling feedback. The nature of their work responsibilities leads to some of them being abroad and on call and out of internet coverage. We have endeavoured to make as much of the programme as practicable available as downloadable documents. There is, however, learning activities such as Discussion Board entries, formative and summative multiple choice quizzes and written assignments that they must be online to complete.

If you are involved in developing an online and blended programme this year or perhaps you are refreshing the details for an existing programme consider the broadband speeds that is required and make sure the students are informed of same.
Some resources on broadband speeds required for common online activities can be found here: What speeds do I need for Skype, Netflix, video games, etc.? (Ookla)