Online Learning: data caps are a problem; openness is a solution

Filed under Things That Really Get Our Goat (actually, not really; that isn’t one of our blog categories…but pretend).

The Chronicle‘s recent article “Caps on Data Use Dim Online Learning’s Bright Future” is missing a big part of the story in open licensing and open media formats. We don’t blame them, because in all the buzz about new-style MOOCs (we’re exempting the connectivists here), the issue of free and open educational resources in online education has been, at best, an afterthought in mainstream coverage.

So let’s be clear: in many, if not most, of the latest iteration of MOOCs, “free” means free of cost and “open” means when made available and presuming you’ve got the bandwidth. Which is awesome, don’t get us wrong. Free learning? Yes, please!

Now, the article discusses the issue of mobile data caps. Many people, especially in rural or otherwise under-served areas, depend on mobile broadband connections (even on non-mobile devices like laptops) to stay linked in. At the same time, online courses are promising to bring high quality learning to anyone, anywhere, anytime, often using streaming video to help get the job done. However, mobile data usage is often either capped outright or throttled after a certain amount of data has been used, after which data is prohibitively expensive or impossibly slow. You see the problem; would-be students are thwarted in their attempt to participate in a MOOC by straight-up lack of access to essential materials.

As Internet access moves from being a privilege to being (perhaps) an economic, professional, political, and personal imperative, data caps are a real concern. But here’s what’s missing from the story, from the general coverage, and unfortunately (perhaps) from the popular consciousness: open licensing and open media formats, combined with investment in public access to wi-fi (as through libraries, open university campuses, bus stations, you name it) make it entirely feasible for students to collect bandwidth-hungry materials for offline use on any computing device. This is true in rural parts of the United States, and it’s true elsewhere in the word when users are granted the right not just to download, but to distribute materials. Take Joanne Freeman’s excellent lectures on the American Revolution over at Open Yale Courses: each lecture is available as a transcript, an audio .mp3, a 100mb video, and a 500mb video. Selecting any one of the latter options allows one to download the content directly; it would be a matter of maybe half an hour to download all 25 lectures to a local server, a flash drive, or a smart phone, after which they can be duplicated and distributed under Creative Commons’ BY-NC-SA license ad nauseam.

Bandwidth and data caps matter, but so does licensing. If a course provider’s intent is to provide learning for everyone, everywhere, then change should start within.

 

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