Wednesday, July 07, 2010


When Students Can’t Get Broadband

I’ll stipulate upfront that this will vary by region.

In my neck of the woods, broadband coverage is just common enough for people who have it to assume that anybody who wants it can get it. But that’s not the case. Some of the smaller, more isolated parts of the college’s service area still don’t have a meaningful broadband option. They can get dialup, but most of our online courses (and many of our online self-service modules) are complex enough that dialup really isn’t a satisfactory option. And ‘mobile broadband’ -- whether in the form of air cards, mifis, or smartphones -- is both spotty and well beyond the budgets of most students. (Microsoft discovered that with the failure of the “kin.”)

In many ways, my college (and most others) has moved to embrace online delivery of both courses and services. It enables a certain independence from the constraints of time, place, and facilities, and in some cases it’s clearly an efficiency gain. (I remember the unmitigated glee when I discovered in grad school that I could check on the presence or absence of a book in the university library by logging in from home. The time saved was astonishing.) It also allows students to get business done when they’re actually available, rather than just during normal business hours; for students with jobs and families, this is no small thing.

But we still can’t take the ubiquity of broadband for granted. Which means we still have to duplicate many of our services. Cost and productivity gains will remain ephemeral until we can stop duplicating.

So, a thought: why don’t mobile ISP’s offer meaningful student discounts? (I say ‘meaningful’ in the sense of both ‘substantial’ and ‘visible.’ Right now some of them offer small discounts if you know to ask, but you have to know to ask, and the discounts aren’t much.)

I can imagine a college including an optional discounted mobile ISP account in student fees, and students choosing the ISP that best covers their own area. Then, the students could access needed services, and they’d also become accustomed to the amazing convenience of having broadband where you want it, when you want it. As a mobile broadband user myself, I can attest that once you get used to it, you’re hooked. It’s remarkably handy, often in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated at first. But I love the idea that even a student in the middle of nowhere could slip a modem into the usb port of a cheapo netbook and be able to do whatever she needs to do.

Ideally, of course, we’d have a fully built-out wired system with substantial public subsidies, so mobile would be largely redundant. But we’re not there, and in some areas, it will be years before we are. In the meantime, we have entire cohorts of students whose options are markedly more limited than their peers’, and we have duplication of services at a time when budgets are inadequate and shrinking.

The business case for an ISP offering a student discount seems straightforward enough. With four major carriers nationally (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon) and a bunch of smaller regional carriers, there typically isn’t much separating one company’s service from another’s. The internet is the same no matter whose service I use to get to it. But a company that offered students half off during the academic year would be able to distinguish itself from its competitors, and inertia is such that once people pick a carrier, they tend to stick with it. Build brand loyalty -- or at least inertia -- and you’ll make money over time.

Until something like this comes along, we’ll still have to duplicate most of our services, paying for the new while still supporting the old. Worse, some students simply won’t have the access to what’s becoming increasingly essential, and others will eat their lunch.

Eventually, of course, the ideal would be cheap and ubiquitous broadband, much like the cheap and ubiquitous phone service before it. But until then, this seems like a good bridge. Verizon, can you hear me now?

Interesting idea, but my guess is that the mobile ISPs would say "Thanks, but no thanks."

Why would any mobile ISP want more consumers who tend to be heavy users (file sharing, online gaming, streaming video, etc.)? Especially when those consumers also tend to be less diligent about paying their bills, and more difficult to collect from when they do not pay?
Some things to consider:

1. It is possible to design web interfaces for low-bandwidth-use, so they work well over dial-up connections. Older systems were designed with this in mind, but in 2010, IT will need to be told specifically about this constraint. Since they all have boffo access, they tend to assume everyone does.

The one thing that really does not work over dial-up is video. Tiny windows, extreme compression, or substantial start-up times: take your pick.

2. If you serve a population that is on the poorer side, expect that some of them have no computer equipment at all. That means making computer labs available on campus and (crucially) providing instruction that starts at ground zero.

3. Think hard about whether you actually need to serve a population that cannot attend classes and also cannot study on line. That sounds like an odd slice of the market. If you insisted on trying to serve them, I guess you'd have to do distance education as it was done circa 1985.

I think you'd be better off making your night-school courses as good and convenient as you can.
I'm glad to see that you have looked beyond the conventional wisdom and examined actual data. I've been surveying my class for years now to determine what kind of computer access they have at home. Initially I was surprised how many had broadband (until I thought about my nephew's association with World of Warcraft) because it was still expensive due to limited competition, but these days I am even more surprised by the ones who don't even have a computer. I use this info so I can help my students plan the where as well as the when for doing on-line homework.

Part of that is considering the value of f2f interaction, so it is common for students to arrange study groups at on- and off-campus hot spots.

I don't understand your remark that your college will "still have to duplicate many of our services." Don't you provide computer access on campus? We do, so we have few problems after shifting a number of college services to web-based only. The main problem is with the few students who come out of K-12 as total computer novices, one that we address with a first-semester course. (I trust, naively, that it will cover our financial aid and registration systems as well as Word.)

Or are you wishing that you could get rid of all on-campus f2f classes? That makes little sense to me given the value students say they place on interacting with a real human expert.

Also, think about Johan's closing statement. We have some full-time faculty who prefer working the night shift, just as we have some who specialize in 7 and 8 AM classes. (Both tend to bring in better motivated students.) There are some good options there, particularly with mixed courses where some of the "class" time is on the web.
All of the learning management systems I've seen have a graphical user interface so students are basically screwed if they only have dial-up.

I would try to sell students on the idea of buying satellite service, arguing that if they don't need to drive to campus, the service pays for its self.

My question - what are these folks doing for cable (or equivalent) TV? If they can swing cable, internet should be a no brainer. That said, I live in a neighborhood that did not have digital cable until three years ago. Crazy!
Ivory, it's rather assuming that those students have a paid-for TV service. I teach students who have dial-up or no internet at all and most also don't have anything besides rabbit ears and those DTV converter boxes. I grew up in a very rural area. My parents still can not get cable TV, the company refuses to run a line.

For me personally, I build in class time to use the labs when I'm teaching at the one local CC. And on the first day I ask who has internet access (reliable internet access) so I can figure out what needs the class has.
@Johan Larson - yes, web interfaces can be scaled down, but it would never happen. software used for online learning is written by companies & licensed by the university. no company is going to offer a dumbed-down alternate interface that doesn't "pop". it's too much work.

here, broadband will cost you $50 a month (for roughly 4MB download). that is a lot to a single college kid, but most college kids have roommates, and can split the burden. with 3 kids in 1 house, that's roughly $15 a month, which is surely doable.

i would say that a kid who is living by him/herself & can't afford broadband needs to reevaluate their situation, and find/become a roommate. i know of a few people who lived by themselves in college, but it was because their scholarships were so amazing that money wasn't a problem.

i would also say that almost every town has a library with broadband (and are usually opened pretty late), and it's hard to actually find a street that doesn't have a starbucks (who has wifi).

i would agree that broadband prices in general are ridiculous, especially considering a lot of the backbone has been funded by the gov't (ergo tax dollars). profit margins among the major ISPs are some of the biggest in the country. whereas 99% of most products become cheaper as the market grows, data delivery (ISP & cellular) prices have gone up, which doesn't make a lot of sense. we are all getting reamed. it is not just college kids who need prices to go down.
@okie.floyd and what about the non "kids". It's a community college meaning there are a fair number of nontraditional students who do not have internet access or $50 a month. They can't exactly be taking in roommates.
I'm going to jump on the 'simplify the interface' bandwagon. I've never seen an online learning system that worked will with even basic DSL service, let alone dial-up. There's no need for flash and glitz (not to mention Flash™) for most of what happens online.
Ivory, it's rather assuming that those students have a paid-for TV service.

Maybe - but I think it is reasonable to assume some kind of connectivity is possible, just as it is reasonable to assume that my students will have pens and paper and access to word processing equipment. There's a certain level of resource that all students have to have in order to participate in college. Computers and internet are part of that.

Satellite internet is pretty fast and available just about anywhere. It costs about $100 per month and if I were a student I would consider it one of the required expenses associated with school (as much as my texts and parking pass are).

This thread reminds me of a talk I went to at the Adobe headquarters about their new software for eLearnining. They commented that when they went to Japan, they were explaining to the Japanese how the software would work for people without broadband. This confused the Japanese - their question "Who doesn't have broadband?" (sigh)

Too bad more stimulus money didn't go into supporting internet infrastructure. We have lots of solar panel installers now and too many places with no cheap fast internet.
I think Anon 3:22 is correct - offering students a discount for mobile ISP service would lead to an influx of those users the ISPs would least like to have.

I'm also not confident that the former students would continue to pay for mobile broadband once they lost their discount (assuming we are talking about a substantial discount and not the 15% discount that is widely available).

In any event 3G or better mobile broadband is pretty much only available around decent-sized metro areas - this would leave out a lot of CC students anyway.

It also seems to me that there are a lot of workarounds - assuming you can't get dsl or cheap broadband, there are a lot of locations where free wifi is available...Mcdonalds, Starbucks, public libraries, etc.

Also, I don't really see the case for subsidizing BB over other goods and services that are also expensive but necessary. Not having affordable daycare is a problem for some CC students, as is not having a reliable car, having to buy expensive books, etc.

There are costs to getting an education; and if we want to reduce those costs, I don't think that mobile broadband is really the place to start.
I agree with Johan's comment about getting with IT to design for low-bandwidth-use. For videos/audio/giant PDFs/etc, offer downloading as well as streaming, and then dial-up users can either queue them up to download overnight or download them from computer labs on campus and toss them on a thumbdrive for later use at home (I did a lot of this second option when I was in college as a dial-up user and presented with large files).

If you keep beating your web people with accessibility over shiny, it is possible to get almost everything to work on dial-up, but it does require regular insistence on the point. Perhaps include a page where users can report anything that doesn't work well over dial-up and have someone in IT who reads those submissions and tries to streamline pages as needed.
e-learning is based upon flash & videos for a reason.

the amount of work required to actually provide something interactive, intuitive, and useful would be huge when talking terms of CSS+HTML+[server-side-code]+Javascript. huge.

flash allows drag-and-drop, point and click design, plus it allows one to copy frames (or points) from one file to another seamlessly. you can move stuff around with a mouse. there is no easy way to do this when talking about delivering rich content via html+css+javascript. from someone who has experience in dealing with all of this, i can't begin to explain the work involved in such a transformation. when talking about a very robust CMS, it would be a massive undertaking, and probably not profitable in the end. and then getting sites to be 508 compliant? dear God!

building such a system isn't impossible, but it would need a few million dollars in grant money to get started, as no company would spend that amount of R&D money on such an undertaking.

it is much easier and faster to create a flash video or movie. it is reusable and injectable. tons of bandwidth, but not really a more feasable option.

and there is a rule that the software industry lives by: never rewrite code

pushes for dumbed down interfaces that can run faster on dial-up still requires dial-up, which means someone has to have a phone-line plus the dial up service (here in OK, that means $25 + $10). considering most students don't have home phones anymore, the price is creeping up pretty close to broadband anyway.

@anon 12:40pm, you are correct. thanks for calling me on it.

i would argue that people should be able to request a hard copy of their online courses. if a student can't get broadband, have the school send him/her everything printed out on paper.

i completely agree that broadband rates are heavily inflated, but i don't see the rates as unachievable. and i think there are a lot of options available to those who truely can't get there.
I like this in theory, but there are places where both mobile and broadband networks are inaccessible--I live in one of them, and I'm in a decently sized suburb. Only one carrier kindasortamaybe has reception in my paret of town and by me, you have to stick your head against a certain window and hold very still to have a prayer of making a cell call.

How many students who live in broadband inaccessible places also live in places unreachable with cellular networks? Would such a program actually increase access among hard to reach students?

On the weekends when I use GoToMyPC to work from home, I need to drive a few miles into town and set up shop at Starbucks or the library to have a workable internet connection.
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