By Tracy Tenkorang, Project Assistant & Kim Welch, Instructional Designer
Tracy Tenkorang is a Ghanaian graduate student at Arizona Sate University. Kim Welch works on an e-learning initiative with institutions in multiple countries.
Have you ever felt the panic of losing internet connection before or during an important meeting, class, or test? Sadly, for many learners, unreliable internet is a way of life. A study of 52 million U.S households found that 3.7 million homes lack consistent connectivity (USAfacts.org, 2020). When analyzing connectivity worldwide, the deficit of reliable bandwidth grows exponentially larger with only ~55% of households having access to some level of internet (UNESCO, 2021). In less-developed countries, only one in five households are able to access the internet (Broom, 2020), and even then, connection speeds vary. For faculty and instructional designers, careful attention to course design can help these learners access learning that might otherwise be unattainable.
Many instructors don’t understand the Herculean efforts some of these learners undertake in order to access coursework. Those who do not have stable internet at home often have to bike, drive, or take public transportation to internet access hubs that may only be available at certain times of the day. Marc Alan Sperber, an e-learning professional with experience designing for low-bandwidth environments, stated that many of these learners use only smartphones, and their time investments increase as they have to spend more time uploading and downloading materials. In countries with poor internet connectivity, many students stay up all night using more cost-effective “midnight bundles” purchased from different telecommunication providers to complete tasks at lower-peak times.
How can we help these students who could benefit from online learning while minimizing the extra efforts they have to make due to low connectivity–all while maintaining important standards of learning? Moore (1989) indicates three types of interaction that help people to learn in an online environment: learner interaction with content, learner interaction with instructors, and learner interaction with other learners. The following lists ways to maintain the integrity of learning based on Moore’s model while paying attention to the needs of learners with low connectivity.
Low-bandwidth ways to maximize learner interaction with content
To optimize teaching and learning for students experiencing connectivity issues, an asynchronous course format offers both instructors and students various options to ensure materials are accessible to all, even those with limited connectivity levels. Therefore, most of the solutions listed below focus on the asynchronous style of teaching and learning.
- Create short but effective, downloadable lecture videos to reduce the time and bandwidth needed to complete transfers as well as enable students to watch videos even in the absence of internet connectivity. As a backup, store all recorded videos in the cloud and ensure students can access them for instances where they lose their downloads.
- Whether using short or longer-length videos, compress the videos ensuring they have a reduced size requiring minimum bandwidth for an easy download. (Note that depending on how a video was made, even some short videos files can be large, so compression is helpful.)
- Eliminate non-essential videos, pictures, slide transitions or special effects in slide presentations as these effects require more bandwidth to appear clearly on the screen.
- Provide students with links to different download options for faster downloading if they have low-bandwidth needs, for example save slides to a smaller PDF file.
- In conditions where images need to be used to enhance learners’ understanding, check and compress the picture sizes.
- If visuals are not crucial to a lecture, record and distribute audio lectures (mp3 or similar format) to reduce the download time and bandwidth requirement.
- Provide text transcripts for all recorded lectures and videos to enable students to easily read what transpired if streaming the video becomes impossible due to bandwidth difficulties.
- Prioritize mobile-first design strategies, “especially for Android devices” to promote easy accessibility as many students in low-bandwidth areas lack laptops or high digital literacy and solely depend on the most affordable phones (Sperber, 2022). First steps can be taken in this endeavor through testing courses on phones to identify potential challenges in order to correct and make incremental improvements along the way.
Low-bandwidth ways to maximize learner interaction with instructors
- Supplement online office hours with emails, texts, or social media chats, and encourage students to reach out to teaching or graduate assistants (TAs or GAs) via these low bandwidth mediums outside of office hours.
- Set up discussion boards where questions posted by students can be answered by instructors. This will be instrumental in building student-teacher rapport.
- Communicate constantly with students about flexibility and enlighten them on the various bandwidth-inclusive learning resources the institution has put in place for their success.
- Add short, downloadable videos with the instructor speaking throughout the course so students can experience the personality of the instructor and feel more comfortable reaching out. These videos can include an introduction to the course along with introductions to units or important aspects of the course content.
- When synchronous learning (live lectures or office hours) is necessary, encourage students to participate and contribute via the chat feature if speaking up is impossible due to shaky internet connectivity.
Low-bandwidth ways to maximize learner interaction with each other
- Foster an intentional learners’ community via consistent use of asynchronous student-to-student communication: formal graded discussion boards, class forums, meetings, or other community spaces. Instructors should be sure to establish, share and enforce rules of engagement to promote effective and civil student participation and interaction.
- To encourage social bonding, incorporate non-graded informal discussion boards and group messaging prompts to foster peer-to-peer engagement with “getting to know each other” activities.
- If the course includes group work, set up small project groups of 4-5 students and encourage teams to use asynchronous collaborative resources such as Google Docs, Sheets, etc. Also demonstrate to students how to effectively use offline collaborations, such as Google Workspace offline. (Note that using Google Workspace offline and other collaborative applications can create undesirable “type-overs” if used incorrectly. Typically, it works best if individual learners have designated spaces for typing, such as a specific slide, question, or table cell, where others will not be adding direct input.)
- Consider incorporating social media for informal course community spaces. A 2021 Pew Research Study identified young adults as the highest social media users; hence, integrate low-bandwidth and low-tech social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram Lite and WhatsApp to facilitate student-to-student interaction and support informal learning spaces. (Note that some countries include WhatsApp in low-cost data packages, so it is used more often than other social messaging systems.)
In conclusion, ensuring the academic success of students experiencing internet connectivity issues requires a lot of “emotional intelligence, empathy, and patience as it goes a long way toward helping someone transform their life for the better” (Sperber, 2022). Using even some of these listed design steps can break down major barriers for students who want to learn in spite of Internet connection challenges.