A recent NZ herald article reports on a survey by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research which questions some assumptions about high-speed broadband and its effect on productivity. In particular, the survey found that there was ‘no discernable (sic) additional effect arising from a shift from slow to fast broadband’.
The article then goes on to state the contrary viewpoint and ends by claiming that there is evidence that high-speed broadband would deliver benefits such as :
- hospitalisation of older people could be reduced by 40-70 per cent
- smart grids could save 30 per cent of energy
- e-education would deliver far more productive 1:1 education services
- smart cities, smart transport and smart infrastructure would greatly contribute to the environment and society at large.
These seem like gross generalisations and are, I suspect, not based on any rigorous evidence. Working as I do in education, the 3rd bullet point seems to me like over-optimistic hype: I don’t believe that it’s a lack of bandwidth that prevents 1:1 services from being widely available in our education system. Sure, a ‘fat pipe’ would mean one-to-one tutoring would be able to use a full range of high-quality media. But would that necessarily be more ‘productive’? Writers such as Garrison and Anderson have argued that asynchronous text-based interaction is more effective when higher-order learning is an imperative.
If bandwidth was such a key factor in improving the effectiveness of education, I’d expect the lecturers I work with every week to be clamouring for it. Many of them are already doing great things with embedded media and synchronous communication. Where the technology is holding them back, it’s more likely to be a lack of reliability and training. If speed was the key factor, they’d all be working with KAREN. In fact, the great majority of them have never heard of this high-speed network.
I’m all for high-speed broadband being widely available to educators here in New Zealand, and I look forward to the day when I can use new tools in new ways because lack of speed is no longer an issue. In the meantime, we need to beware of hype which tries to persuade decision makers that high-speed broadband is the ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’: education will only become more effective when a whole raft of problems are resolved. Indeed, we could make profound and positive changes without changing the technical infrastructure. It’s about a lot more than mere speed.
Garrison, DR & Anderson, T (2003). E-learning in the 21st Century. Routledge Falmer, London.
Unknown author. About KAREN. Accessed 3 November 22009 from http://www.karen.net.nz/about/
Unknown author. Survey questions ultra-fast broadband gains. Accessed 3 November 2009 from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10607054
Photo: Optical fibre by BigRiz