The May 9, 2012 infographic The State of the Internet, from OnlineUniversities.com, includes the following information about the power and potential of the Internet to bring online learning to people in developed and developing countries around the globe:
"In recent years, online universities have opened many doors for individuals from a variety of backgrounds who may not have otherwise been able to pursue further education. Across the globe, this is fueled in large part by the increasing availability of high speed Internet access. While there are still some areas that have lower Internet penetration rates and slower data speeds, which may prevent them from fully accessing multimedia content, individuals from developed and developing countries alike are flocking to online education. In the near future, we can expect to see access to affordable and flexible education programs continue to flourish as the growth of technology access increases in countries across the world." (OnlineUniversities.com)
The infographic itself contains valuable information about Internet penetration and average connection speeds. But how do these figures really translate to online education and what does the U.S.'s poor showing in this data mean for our own increasing reliance on advanced communication technologies not only for education, but for so many aspects of our daily life?
The Digital Divide is Real
The idea that the U.S. has only a 74.2% Internet penetration compared to the U.K. and Germany, who are in the 80% range, and China, which, while only at 71.8% (The World Bank, Internet users per 100 people), still represents a vastly greater total number of users, is quite disheartening and is directly attributable to our stratified society and "me first" attitude towards basic needs.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that only 65% of individuals with an annual household income of $30,000 or less use the Internet. In contrast, 94% to 98% of those earning more than $50,000 annually use the Internet. Additionally, the report indicates that blacks and Hispanics have Internet access at a considerably lower rate than whites (71% to 83%) (Pew, Demographics of Internet Users, Feb. 2012).
Where do these numbers leave those seeking online learning opportunities? According to information from Classes and Careers, based on the Sloan Consortium report, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010, those earning less than $40,000 annually comprise 74.3% of online learners. So, those who are most likely to need online learning as an option, and who would most benefit from it, are also those most likely to be excluded from that opportunity because of a lack of Internet access. Unless there is a movement to either regulate the price of broadband access, subsidize it, or a significant push to make high speed access universally free, we will continue to underserve a population in need of online learning.
In addition to actually having access to the Internet, the speed at which we all connect is also an issue. According to data from Akamai's latest State of the Internet report, the United States ranks 13th in the world for average Internet speed at 5.8 Mbps. Compared to global competitors such as South Korea (17.5 Mbps), Japan (9.1 Mbps), and Hong Kong (9.1 Mbps) we lag far behind. While this may not seem like a significant problem, overall connection speed makes a difference in the pace at which the world flows and other technologies advance.
Innovations, including those that could facilitate more robust and interactive educational opportunities, are potentially being stymied by the slower connection speeds that most Americans experience. Back in the 1990s, when I began working as an online video producer for the Inquiry Learning Forum, both the speed of the connectivity and of computers in general were limiting what we could produce and deliver. We spent a significant portion of our time planning how we could limit our content – by creating smaller, shorter, or less-interesting videos – time that could have been better used in thinking about new and innovative approaches to delivering our content. Despite the great advances in connection speed since then, developers and inventors are still facing the same obstacles – obstacles that could be reduced if our infrastructure supported faster connectivity.
What Are We Missing?
How are the limitations on connectivity affecting American life and education? Are there exciting new technologies that could make our lives easier, faster, and more efficient? While it is impossible to accurately predict what new innovations could be sparked by increases in bandwidth and connectivity, here are some of the things we may be missing unless we can boost our overall connection speeds dramatically.
- Collaborative Tools: Living in a connected world is great, but how connected are we really? Currently, in order to truly collaborate with others you need to be at a workstation where you are sure of your connection speed and have quick access to all of the resources you might need. With increased connectivity, it will be possible to utilize cloud-based resources and tools to work with others anywhere, in real time, with no lags or drops.
- Immersive Environments: Even with the apparent demise of Second Life (Educause Review, May/June, 2012), the future may be bright for immersive virtual environments as a whole. Increased bandwidth and connectivity can bring this concept back to life and make it capable of offering the kinds of rich interactivity that it initially promised. Add to this the idea of augmented reality, and there is potential for immersive environments in all contexts of our lives. Which leads us to . . .
- Wearable Technology: Tools such as Google's Project Glass (head's up display spectacles) will allow individuals to be interactively informed about anything, anywhere, as long as the connectivity and bandwidth are available to support the technology. Google's demo video of their forthcoming wearable device illustrates the power of this new wave of connected, wearable computing.
- Big Data: The overwhelming amount of information generated by our current technology is relatively small compared to that which will be available if our lives become even more connected than they currently are. The idea of Big Data is that we need tools to make sense of this flood of information for business, socializing, and education. Increased connective capabilities will allow us to harvest more data and actually use it in something close to real time. The wearable technology video above provides a nice illustration of this capability in action.
- Ubiquitous Education: Finally, what all of these other technologies and improved connectivity allow for is the idea of ubiquitous education. Right now, most of our education happens within the context of a classroom environment. New technologies will allow education to escape the boundaries of the classroom and school and integrate seamlessly with real world contexts. In this way, nursing students could be connected to their instructors in hospitals, science students could work in labs, and social scientists could engage in field work with supervision and guidance regardless of where their interests take them. Education has the potential to become something new and exciting by transforming into a process that allows students to work in their desired field while learning about it in a safe and supported way.
The Internet is the most powerful technological advancement since the steam engine and electricity, but it could be so much more. As one of the fundamental components of our lives, it should be free and accessible to everyone whenever they need it. Current regulations and poor infrastructure are choking off not only our access to a rich world of entertainment, but also to a new way of interacting with the world and each other, and a future in which education and learning could be embedded in the very fabric of life.