Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Higher education broadband developments

Some interesting recent developments in the higher education sector, both in terms of content and infrastructure.

The BBC reported that the University of Edinburgh was the first UK university to participate in the Coursera project, which provides an online platform which carries course content from its partner universities (coverage from the New York Times here). Coursera offers its courses without charge and has acquired 650,000 students since its launch. The BBC article states that this is indicative of  a rapid change over the past year in attitudes towards delivering higher education online, with universities no longer considering whether or not they should offer courses online but simply how to put it into practice. The edX project, being launched this autumn, is similar, being a partnership between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), based on MIT's earlier prototype MITx service. The Khan Academy deserves a mention in this context too (more here).

In many ways it's still very early days for these services, and a number of issues remain to be resolved, for example in relation to how to assess and accredit online education. But it will be interesting to see in time if and how these models come to complement and augment the traditional model of higher education. Anything which makes the sector more accessible, both domestically and internationally, can only be a good thing in my view; though such programmes are clearly entirely dependent upon the sufficient availability of broadband connectivity if they are to have true universal reach.

In terms of infrastructure, ArsTechnica recently reported on the Gig.U initiative (more here) which seeks to "seeks to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities". The ArsTechnica article describes the opportunity the initiative is attempting to build on:
"College towns have several advantages that make them ideal locations for the nation's fastest broadband networks. The people who live near college towns tend to be relatively affluent professors and tech-savvy college kids: both desirable customers for a broadband network. In addition, the Internet began as an academic project, so universities themselves tend to have deep expertise in building and maintaining high-speed networks. And universities often have a lot of influence over local governments whose cooperation will be crucial to making the project cost-effective."
The project's specific aim is to drive demand for new gigabit applications:
"Right now, there's a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with next-generation Internet services: there are few applications that can make use of gigabit network speeds, but no one wants to build those applications without an installed base of customers. Levin (Gig.U Executive Director) sees his project as a partial solution to this problem. He hopes Gigabit Squared will be able to "lead demand" for new high-speed Internet applications rather than merely following demand that already exists. "One of the best things that occurred when the Internet went private—the universities kept control of the networks on their campuses," he told us. "The best networks are really the campus networks." Levin hopes to see high-speed connectivity spread outwards from the nation's universities to encompass the surrounding communities."
Finally, Bill St. Arnaud makes a number of interesting observations in a recent blog post about the future of R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure which offer some synergy with the thinking behind Gig.U:
"Almost all of the major Internet applications we know of today such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc were first developed at university dormitories and laboratories by students who had access to these high speed research networks. The unfettered bandwidth and “permission free” environment made possible by universities connected through R&E networks enabled these students to create exciting new applications and services that would not be possible on commercial networks of the day."
This opportunity for experimentation and exploration is key to creativity:
"...R&E networks are morphing into “entertainment” networks as the bulk of the IP traffic (over 60%) at many universities  is video streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, video file sharing etc.  This is consistent with other data I have seen over the years, that the bulk of most IP traffic on R&E networks is destined for residences and dormitories, of which a substantial is entertainment or game based traffic. (Lightpath traffic is generally much more research intensive)...this preponderance of social networking and entertainment traffic on university R&E networks is not a bad thing. Students are the leading adopters of advanced technology and when they are given the  freedom of having virtually unfettered bandwidth and few restrictions they can be very creative. New services such as R&E CDN networks, collaborative platforms, integrated wireless services, etc promise to leverage this entertainment aspect of R&E networks to facilitate a similar revolution as students in residences get exposed to these technologies and adopt them into new products and services out into the working world."
In this context the Gig.U initiative appears particularly insightful.

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