Blog/20090527 designing for hybrid access

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With reference to the oer4teachers discussion (Blog/20090528 oer4teachers), the draft document mentioned that the resource might be designed for print/CD. Here are some initial thoughts from my mailing to the list:

Let me be devils advocate, and challenge the 'design for print and CD'. Of course it's logical to assume that access to computers is more likely than access to computers + internet. But at the same time, do we know the details? Do we know how many computers there are in schools that are sufficiently functional so that they would substantially benefit from CD, but at the same time have no internet access?

In other words, is print/CD really going to bridge the divide, i.e. is print/CD the critical element that makes it happen? Of course the CD can contain extra resources, and that might be a good start (and I would argue that the CD should contain a selection of OERs, as Kelvin also suggested). However, to be fully used within the curriculum, searching appropriate OER via the internet is probably unavoidable. In which case you could argue that the print/CD probably will do very little, because it won't contain the right resources for all circumstances.

If I had to hedge my bet, and had to decide how to use limited finance, I would first of all make sure that the module is online, but with a fully low-bandwidth/mobile phone optimised website, including downloadable versions.

This isn't trivial: Most sites (even if built specifically for OER in Africa) follow northern bandwidth patterns (200-300kB per page), rather than the recommended size (25kB - 75kB).

Then you need to point the existence of the resource out to people, and there a leaflet, or perhaps a poster, might be the right thing. A basic message that I would want to give out would be 'leverage your internet connection for teaching'. Many people will have heard of the internet (though may not actually have used it), and the internet is generally perceived as a good thing. OER may be less well known.

If I was going to distribute print/CDs, I would probably opt for memory stick. It's more expensive, but it's useful for downloading more OERs from your local internet cafe.

In retrospect, the post was probably arguing too strongly against the print/CD, when really I should have argued more with the 'design for' element. Of course there's nothing wrong with having a resource also on print/CD, but the issue is with 'design for'. We need to design for scalability, and hybrid information delivery.

And of course it is true: There are many sites with computers, that have no access, so we absolutely need to be able to deliver offline resources. However, by having a resource just offline, it excludes people who are online to some extent.

Let me expand a little. Being devils advocate again, I would argue that often we see online/offline as a 'binary' choice, a dichotomy. But really, it's not either/or, not really a digital divide, but 'digital slippery slope'. Of course I am caricaturing this to some extent, but let's go with this for a moment, and ask:

Is it true to say that people are either fully online or offline?

  1. Take for instance a teacher in a rural region, where a school doesn't have internet. They may need to travel to the local resource centre for day, and may only do this once a year. Clearly this is very poor connectivity,  but at the same time, is it true to say that they are fully disconnected?
  2. As another example: I am usually connected by broadband. However, when I travel, I only have GPRS, and when I travel abroad, that connectivity can cost me the same as a satellite connection. So is it true to say that I am fully connected (all the time)?
  3. Final example: When I browse with opera mini on my phone in the UK, my connectivity (~ GPRS) is about the same as when I do this in rural Zambia. (About the same means within a factor of 2, rather than a factor 10 or 20.)

So it's a spectrum of connectivity. I am of course not saying that everybody is connected, and I am not saying that everybody who is connected is automatically well connected. Far from it! But many teachers will have some connectivity: Not a lot of connectivity, it may be variable, and expensive, but there may well be some connectivity.

Let me be devils advocate again: I would argue that because we see connectivity as either full online or fully offline, and because teachers clearly aren't fully online, we then tend to focus on fully offline delivery. This means that we think of print/CD as primary, and then often a website comes as a (poorly designed?) afterthought.

I was recently looking at an open text book site. Open text books are clearly much needed, but unfortunately the site turned out to be a classic example of a site that's legally accessible (CC-By), but technically (from the south) being totally inaccessible. So for the south, it doesn't matter that the resources are legally open. From a technical (southern perspective) they are 'closed'. The site did offer a CD: So you are either very well connected, and you can use the site, or you have to have a CD posted. In my mind, that's not good enough.

I was interested in a particular book they had, which turned out to be 2MB. By comparison, a single web page on the site is a quarter of the size of the book (0.5 MB). That's totally disproportionate to the respective information content! (I.e. information content of a single web page on the site vs. the information content of the book as a whole!) 2MB is reasonable for a book, but 0.5MB is too large for web page: A typical load time of a single page on the site might be 2-3 minutes (which, if accessed from an internet cafe, equates to real money). If you were strict about the page recommendations (c.f. Aptivate low bandwidth guidelines), the web site is out by a factor of 10 of what constitutes a (low bandwidth) accessible website.

It's of course very unfair to single out this particular site, because there's really nothing strange about the page size: It's still a fairly typical page size on average: Most websites in the north are built for our fast connections, so be assured that the site isn't the only one with this problem, far from it.

I hope this illustrates the point that I was trying to make: Offline content is important, by it can't be at the expense of reasonably formatted online content. So overall, what we need is scalable content provision, that works "offline", "online", and in the various hybrid scenarios inbetween.

Finally, I do see the access issue in some sense as primary: In the recent discussion about access on the UNESCO OER mailing list, there was a lot of discussion of pedagogy/localisation, but there was a very strong southern voice saying "we can't see the stuff, because we have insufficient bandwidth". So in my view, we need to really try to solve basic access issues, and then (together with partners in the dev'ing world) look at the more detailed stuff (like localisation).

2009-05-27 Leave a comment | Back to blog