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Education sector: Still running on empty

Among the less publicized contributor to the growth of internet bandwidth in Africa are the educational institutions. According to an IT consultant, rising demand from community institutions especially when looking to own and operate internet service provider (ISP) has added momentum to the bandwidth demand growth across Africa.

For institutions wishing to establish internet systems, the starting point needs to be a distribution infrastructure. This have taken the form of cabling, particularly a twisted-pair copper phone lines, coax copper lines, or fibre optic lines, or wireless VSAT antennae on roof top or towers. However, if a commercial ISP such as a telephone company or cable company already owns distribution infrastructure, it may be significantly less expensive to add the equipment to make use of this infrastructure than to build new infrastructure. Sometimes, a nearby Bank could be the source of bandwidth needed to jump starts the internet bandwidth. To make use of such existing infrastructure, the institution will either need to have the ISP owned and run by the infrastructure owner, enter into a partnership agreement with the infrastructure owner, or arrange to have a community-owned ISP rent the distribution infrastructure. If none of these options are viable, or if the existing infrastructure is inadequate for the bandwidth requirements of the community, then investment in new distribution infrastructure will be required. These costs can be very considerable. Fibre optic cabling can run $6,000 / km for cable installed on power poles, and can start at $18,000 / km for trenched cabling. However, the cost for VSAT installation and maintenance may be less.

In addition, becoming an internet service provider requires staff with a range of specialized skills. These include line installation and maintenance; fibre optic splicing or copper cable splicing and/or VSAT antenna installation and alignment, equipment installation and maintenance, help desk support, advance router and network configuration and maintenance skills, email and web server management, and network security. Many of these areas are extremely specialized and skilled staff are difficult to recruit. Smaller ISPs like the educational institutions may find it necessary to contract work, as they will have neither the resources nor the workload to support full-time staff for all of these areas.

Budgetary constraint

Budgetary constraints have affected the healthy balance between the bandwidth supply and demand in spite of the several intensive bandwidth applications in the schools. In some cases, once an institution begins to run on an ISP supply, sustainability of bandwidth supply has always become a challenge. Across African, the last few years have seen an explosion in the availability of video content on the internet, most notably at Youtube, but also at a number of lesser-known sites. These sites include a significant number of videos which can be used as educational resources in curriculum areas ranging from science, mathematics, and geography to English, history, and arts. Access to these videos requires at least 300 kilobits / second, and may be significantly higher for high-definition videos – as much as 5 megabits / second for the highest-quality high-definition video. This bandwidth is primarily download bandwidth coming from the web server to the viewer. Because most of these video resources utilize a download and play system, it is possible to download them ahead of time so that no bandwidth is required at the time of viewing – this also allows high-definition videos to be loaded on lower bandwidth connections for later viewing.

As well as audiovisual resources, there are many interactive educational resources available on the internet, using technologies such as Adobe Flash, Java, or Web 2.0 javascript to deliver interactive applications to learners. These can include things such as physics or chemistry lab simulators, mathematical graphing calculators, or Google Earth mapping, to name but a few. These resources may be designed to have their interactivity dependent on the web browser or local computer only (many lab simulators) or to require ongoing communication (Google Earth). Bandwidth demands will vary depending on the need for ongoing communication to the server, but generally will fit into the same profile as general web browsing at 250 kilobits / second.

As videoconferencing shifts to high definition, bandwidth requirements may increase to up to 4 megabits / second (4096 kilobits / second). Use of learning services or web conference services will generally require 512 kilobits / second (half a megabit / second), while video chat programs will require at least 300 kilobits / second. All of these types of services allow full interaction between the participants, and bandwidth demands are similar for both upload and download. One further form of synchronous learning is the webcast, in which an instructor or presenter can be seen and/or heard by learners, but they can not be seen or heard by the instructor. This type of learning application requires download bandwidth of 256 kilobits / second to 512 kilobits / second, but little upload bandwidth.

Asynchronous learning refers to education in which the learners access course content on their own schedule. The content can include recorded audiovisual presentations, recorded web conferences, web pages, or office documents such as word processing, spreadsheets, or powerpoint presentations. Communication between instructors and students may be through email, chat, private messaging systems, or through class forums, as well as through traditional communication tools such as phone, fax, or mail. Learning may be structured to be purely asynchronous (no live teaching and interaction) or may be primarily synchronous (live teaching and interaction) with recordings available for students who cannot participate at the scheduled time. The bandwidth requirements for asynchronous learning can be similar to those for synchronous learning, but with lower upload requirements. Accessing recorded videoconferences or web conference sessions will require the same download bandwidth as viewing the same sessions live – from 256 kilobits / second to 512 kilobits / second at the low end up to 4 megabits / second for high definition recordings. Accessing other types of content will generally require the same bandwidth as general web browsing –256 kilobits / second.

One educational tool often used by schools is the learning portal. This is a specialized website which holds content and activities for a course as well as communication tools such as forums and private messaging systems to facilitate interaction between students and teachers or between groups of students. These portals may be hosted within a school or may be hosted outside a school as part of a central office. Bandwidth requirements for locally hosted learning portals are minimal when accessed from within a school, but the desire for students, teachers, and potentially parents to be able to access the systems from home may require bandwidth. The bandwidth demands will be dependent on the number of simultaneous users to be supported, but 512 kilobits / second of upload bandwidth is likely a minimum for hosting a learning portal to be accessed from outside a school. If a learning portal is hosted outside a school, bandwidth will be required for students and teachers to be able to access it from within the school. Like any other web-based resource, bandwidth needs will be about 256 kilobits / second per user, but requirements may be much higher if audiovisual content is being hosted on the learning portal.

One administrative application which is commonly used in schools is a student management system, which incorporates functions such as student registration, attendance tracking, assignment grading, and report cards. These systems generally are accessed using a web browser, and the bandwidth requirements are similar to other websites. If the system is hosted within the school, much of the traffic will be local to the school, but access may be needed from outside the school for teachers working from home or for parents to access student reports. The bandwidth demands will be dependent on the number of simultaneous users to be supported, but 256 kilobits / second of upload bandwidth is likely a minimum for hosting a student management system to be accessed from outside a school. If a student management system is centrally hosted for a first nation, tribal council, or other larger group, then bandwidth will be required for accessing it in the school. As content tends to be primarily text-based, bandwidth of 128 kilobits / second per user is likely to be adequate for effective use.

More so, social media websites such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and Youtube are popular with students as recreational activities. This can create challenges for educators in terms of distraction from studying, in terms of potential for inappropriate communications to or from students especially cyber-bullying and/or cyber-stalking, and in terms of bandwidth demand, as these sites can be bandwidth intensive, particularly Youtube. These challenges often lead schools to partially or completely ban these sites. Where they are allowed, bandwidth requirements can range from 128 kilobits / second (for Twitter, which is primarily short texts) to 300 kilobits / second for basic Youtube videos.

Overall school bandwidth requirements are dependent on a number of factors, including the school’s policies toward recreational use of social media, the size of the school, the number of computers available to students, and the applications in use. However, some general guidelines are available. The US government has a recommendation of 50 megabit / second to 100 megabit / second available for every thousand students in a school. This translates to 5 megabit /second to 10 megabit / second per hundred students.

 

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