Bandwidth divide

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Even if your campus is capable of delivering on the scale of the MOOC, you are part of an online ecosystem that is not created equal. There are very real obstacles to delivering online resources to users in the “last mile” of the network who are unable to receive your course because their network bandwidth is effectively nil.

As Jeffrey Young says in “’Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning” (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2013), there is a chasm between the bandwidth haves and have-nots. “As more colleges rush to offer free online courses in the name of providing educational access to all, it’s worth asking who might be left out for lack of high-speed Internet access to watch video lectures.”[1]  Young goes on to cite Martin Hilbert, researcher at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who argues that the bandwidth divide is real and is widening. Hilbert notes that the divide between those with high-speed Internet access and those with dial-up or cellphone access is “bigger than people think.”  Only 66 percent of American adults have broadband access at home, according to a May 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. This has implications for the successful deployment of MOOCs by colleges regardless of the institution’s capacity to develop, deliver, and support online learning. By design, the success of MOOCs and online learning depends in large part on the motivation and capacity of the learner. This must include the capacity to consume high bandwidth resources.

MOOCs are more than the technology that makes them work. MOOCs represent great potential for educational outreach and institutional influence. The development and deployment of MOOCs also represent significant challenges in ensuring effective user support and conscientious oversight with respect to commitment to access and intellectual property.

Online learning is not going away. It has become part of the academic ecosystem. In light of this, as you consider offering MOOCs as a part of your institutional mission and strategic planning, you need to ask yourself: What is your responsibility to participants in your institution’s programming at this scale?  How will you mesh strategy, innovation, and mission?


[1] Young, “‘Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning.”

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