The bandwidth question in e learning

January 21, 2009
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, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 19 – This month, the Kenya ICT Board will commence distribution of bandwidth to Colleges and Universities to support electronic learning efforts. The project will double the current bandwidth at the institutions of higher learning.

Electronic learning is a type of technology-supported education where the medium of instruction is computer technology. In some instances, no face-to-face interaction takes place and uses a wide spectrum of technologies, mainly internet or computer-based, to reach learners.

The ICT Board seeks to support e-learning efforts by supporting internet-based learning by subsidising bandwidth. With the internet, students can register from other towns and get course materials and exams online.

But is bandwidth the solution to e-learning? Are the institutions well-equipped to offer online services or the bandwidth will facilitate idle internet surfing and email on Yahoo and Gmail?

Is there any conditions precedent that the ICT Board should consider before giving the bandwidth, apart from the fact that it is a college or university? What are the software and hardware requirements, to maximize on the available bandwidth?

This is a positive gesture by the government, which will lay the foundation for future projects but bandwidth is just one block; hardware, software and training are the other blocks.

There is no doubt that e-learning has become the new buzz word in institutions of higher learning. Colleges and Universities claim to offer e-learning just because they have a computer lab, which in many cases have five students sharing one computer.

For instance, an institution may be currently using one megabyte of bandwidth which will be doubled to 2MB. This is relatively huge capacity for an institution used to 1MB, but how will it help if the number of computers remains the same. The capacity will be there but students will still share the computers.

The institutions need to be interconnected so that students and universities can access services via their laptops at any point at the university. This may be an expensive exercise for many institutions, yet the board covers the bandwidth costs only.

Kenyatta University (KU) is probably one of the best examples because it has made major strides towards marketing the institution as an e-learning hub, after completing the final leg of the 30-kilometer terrestrial fiber linking all the buildings and campuses.

The University is seeking to emulate other institutions South Africa that have switched to fully converged solutions, offering connectivity through fiber in addition to 112 Local Area Networks (LAN) points.

The terrestrial fiber within the university along Thika road is owned by the institution while the fiber linking Parklands and Ruiru campus has been provided by local loop providers.

"KU currently uses 10 MB per month but the bandwidth is still insufficient for the 20,000 students," Andrew Mungai, the Director of ICT at KU.

In the new scheme, KU expects to receive 10 MB from the board, which will significantly improve speeds.

The university has a challenge of providing computers and laptops to lecturers and fully equipping the computer labs.

So far, the university has received 2000 computers from Computer Aid International and bought 1000 more computers, yet there is a shortage of 2,500 computers in order to satisfy the student computer ratio, according to Mr Mungai.

“Computer Aid International has focused mainly on provision of computers, but we knew of the related need for training and value added services,” said Tony Roberts, Founder and Director of International Programmes at Computer Aid International.
 
For e-learning, KU has received training on Moodle, an e-learning software, deployed with the help of instructors from the university of Worcester, who were linked to KU by Computer Aid International.

"Moodle implementation is very tough given that KU has the highest percentage of physically challenged students," said Mr Mungai. "The collaboration with Computer Aid and Sight Savers has helped provide laptops with speech functionalities for the blind students."

KU currently requires 80 MB to sufficiently cater for the students and staff, the hardware has its own challenges. The university will have to maintain the servers and ensure that they are efficient and least down times for communication to be fluent.

In this regard, if KU faces challenges of hardware and connectivity, how are the other universities expected to link their buildings with fiber and Local Area Networks, considering budgetary constraints?

There is the social aspect; students and staff have to start using official college emails instead of yahoo or Gmail and to gain this faith, the institution has to guarantee minimal downtimes and that information will not be lost at any one point.

Then there is the small problem of monitoring and evaluation, which is not unique to educational institutions.

The institutions will need to put in place a software solution that enables it to centrally collect and analyze internet activity. A comprehensive selection of built-in reports including most visited sites, individual user or user group activity, attempted access to blocked pages, bandwidth utilization and performance.

There are open source and proprietary software that allows network administrators to use a template facility to create, store and schedule their customized reports.

The application will ensure all web browsing activity is stored in database that can be either viewed on screen or exported for further external analysis. An extensive range of detailed reports can be generated to show anything from ‘most visited domains’ and ‘top blocked categories’ to time spent browsing and bandwidth utilization.

This will then confirm that the bandwidth is utilized through actual e-learning platforms and not emails only or other sites that have nothing to do with education.

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