Access2OER:2 Access Issues

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The original OERWIKI seems to be offline (December 2012). The Access2OER discussion pages are preserved here for reference! The final report in pdf is available here: Access2OER_Report,

The report:
Introduction to the report
Part 1 - Issues
What is access?
Issues and classification
Part 2 - Solutions
Solutions criteria
Stories and solutions
Case studies
Part 3 - Proposals
Conclusion and next steps
Additional sections:
Stories 1
Stories 2
Stories 3
Case studies v1
Access initiatives v1
OER Training proposal
Open Educational Resource Centres
OER exchange infrastructure
OER exchange infrastructure diagrams
Additional materials
Access2OER:Additional Considerations
Wiki only
Some technical notes
Discussion Log and Quotes:
Discussion Week 1
Comments on SuperOER
Overview of week 1 activities
Discussion Week 2
Discussion related to solutions put forward
Snippets from the general discussion
Overview of week 2 activities
Discussion Week 3
general discussion
OER training discussion
resource centre discussion
oer exchange discussion
stories discussion
All discussion on one page.
Additional pages
For authors:




In this chapter we propose a classification of access issues, as well as the issues themselves. We start by developing a classification, then consider overarching access issues, before finally discussing individual issues in turn.

1 2.1 Classification of access barriers to OER

We began the first week by surveying a broad range of access issues. The discussion was introduced as follows:

Quote image

Although our initial interaction on the issue started with the consideration of limited or no connectivity, lack of electricity was identified as an even more basic barrier to access to OER. However, there are many other potential barriers or constraints and it will be useful to identify the range of them, for there are emerging solutions or approaches that would mitigate the problems. Developers of OER will benefit from having these in mind – donors and other agencies may be able to contribute to addressing them.

In response to this, a large range of access issues was put forward. Later in the week, we proposed that we classify the issues, and a discussion on the classification followed. For the purpose of this report, we will start with the classification, and then present the access issues according to that classification.

1.1 2.1.1 Purpose of classification

Quote image The first step in any classification process is to identify and understand the purpose of the classification. What is the purpose in this case?

This question was raised early in the discussion. Why should we develop a classification? The following reasons were put forward:

  • To help identify which access issues this OER community could address and which should be left to others.
  • To determine whether they are "hard to fix" or "easy to fix", i.e. "this issue has a clear, easy to implement, acceptable solution" compared to "this issues doesn't have a clear solution, or it would take a very long time to fix".
  • To determine whether a particular issue is important, i.e. whether finding a solution is of high priority.
  • To group issues that may have similar solutions.

For this report, the purpose of the classification is to group issues strategically, according to possible solutions, with a particular view to issues that could be addressed within this community (or other established OER communities, such as the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC), WikiEducator and many others).

1.2 2.1.2 Classification of access issues

An important classification of potential barriers is "social vs. technical", as it informs the type of solutions:

Quote image I classify them into two: social barriers and technical barriers which are mostly due economical reasons. For social barriers, ... cultural obstacles ... fear of the unknown ... lack of awareness ... no institutional or national champion to drive the initiative. For technical barriers (which I think is mostly due to economical reasons), I consider the following ... infrastructure requirements / bandwidth ... skills to use or innovate or to localize the contents.

Another commentator made the distinction between challenges due to the (technical) nature of the content and the challenges due to the wider educational context:

Quote image This of course does not speak to the many challenges that have been cited in this discussion related to the nature of content (open formatting, granularity, bandwidth, use of 3rd party/proprietary content, etc.), institutional incentives and culture (tenure and promotion, lack of trust, etc.), understanding of OER, and skills needed to effectively modify and reuse content for local contexts, but it does at least point us to the potential importance of focused and thoughtful faculty development, mindful learning design and content creation (tagging, consistent use of open licences, ease of accommodation for disabilities and language, etc.).

We can subdivide these broad classifications of potential barriers according to different types of access:

  • Social, awareness, policy, attitude, cultural:
    • Access in terms of awareness (lack of awareness as a barrier to OER)
    • Access in terms of local policy/attitude (do attitudes or policies pose barriers to using OER?)
    • Access in terms of language (how well does the user understand/speak the language of the OER?)
    • Access in terms of relevance (is the OER relevant to the user?)
  • Legal:
    • Access in terms of licensing (is the licensing suitable?)
  • Technical: provision of OER:
    • Access in terms of file formats (are the file formats accessible?)
    • Access in terms of disability (does the OER meet WAI accessibility criteria?)
  • Technical: receiving OER:
    • Access in terms of infrastructure (lack of power/computers makes access hard)
    • Access in terms of internet connectivity/bandwidth (slow connections pose a barrier to access)
    • Access in terms of discovery (if the OER is hidden, not searchable, not indexed, it's hard to find)
    • Access in terms of ability and skills (does the end user have the right skills to access the OER?)

An important secondary classification, in order to determine importance, is to ask which are barriers to both North-South and South-North sharing, as well as which barriers also apply to participation/collaboration.

Finally, we note that, while this classification provides a useful conceptual framework for this report, it is not the only possible system or measure for accessibility.

2 2.2 Overarching access issues

Having developed a broad classification of the issues, we now move to discuss the issues themselves. As discussed initially, there are "narrow" as well as "broad" views one can take regarding the meaning of "access barriers to OER". Initially, we took a broad view and identified overarching issues.

2.1 2.2.1 A broad view of access issues

First, if content is not made available as open content, it cannot be used freely:

Quote image I think that making the content available (OPEN) to all is the first barrier to use.

From a broad view, we can also look at access to content vs. access to production facilities (and the ability to remix content):

Quote image I ... want to paraphrase them as the difference between the access to products (OER, OCW) and the access to the means of production (e.g. production and publication facilities, editorial support units, etc.) Means of production go far beyond mere internet connection and bandwidth.

With respect to accessibility to the means of production, the infrastructure e.g of institutional repositories differs strongly from infrastructure e.g. for wikieducator. One limits access to facilities for members of the institution only, while the other provides equal access to more participants (if they have internet connection). However, sometimes it can be necessary to restrict access to some elements of production facilities (e.g. to secure the integrity/stability of a product.)

Another overarching issue is that of available funding:

Quote image One key obstacle to African participation in OER has been the lack of funding. The most successful international OER projects have all received substantive grants, often in the Millions of US$, to create the infrastructure and capacity to publish educational resources openly. It is not possible for African universities, given the lack of capacity and resources mentioned by others, to fully participate in this movement without financial support.

Of course this lack of funding is the root cause of many of the other issues discussed:

Quote image ... ignore the elephant that is standing in the corner: lack of capacity and bandwidth (as examples) are also related to lack of funding to pay for capacity and bandwidth.

This brings us to infrastructural issues, particularly "gross" infrastructural issues, such as lack of information and communication equipment, lack of electricity - even lack of peace. All of these are barriers to accessing education in general, as well as barriers to accessing and developing OER:

Quote image Infrastructure: Most of Africa suffers from poor infrastructure due to lack of physical facilities, electricity and transportation. To this end, a respondent from Nigeria stated the following, "in my university, there are infrastructural limitations; students often have to sit on windows or squat by doors to receive lectures. Furthermore, our public power supply is epileptic and there seems to be no solution for this at the moment". There are also places where there are no roads to facilitate communication and telephones are a luxury to many. In addition, lack of ICT policies within governments make it difficult to supply bandwidth and connectivity. These infrastructural barriers therefore militate against advancements in accessing digital learning resources. (Philise Rasugu, 2006)
The content access chain (modelled on the bandwidth management chain)

Lack of access to computers or a reliable power supply are one set of barriers linked to poverty. Participants also highlighted the following barriers to OER as outcomes of poverty:

  • distance from local telecenters or Internet cafés (in areas where personal computer purchase and an Internet subscription are beyond the means of most people);
  • time available (where pay is low, people may work two or three full-time jobs to earn sufficient money to live);
  • opposition of family or friends (this was thought to affect women in particular, who may be told that they should tend to cooking, cleaning and caring for their families when not out at work).

Story Image Overarching issues: the case of the Zimbabwe Universities ICT Consortium

At what level does access need to be addressed? To what extent are individuals empowered to make a change? In the Zimbabwean Universities ICT Consortium university ICT heads came together to chart a unified path for the servicing of the ICT needs of universities, other tertiary institutions, schools and the community.

The consortium met and produced a detailed document as a blueprint. It considered the individual university environments and the overall Zimbabwean environment, the needs, expectations and the roles universities could play in affording access to knowledge and knowledge creation. The goal was to consider the obstacles of the varying digital divides and to find ways of overcoming them.

The project proposal document was sent to vice chancellors and the ministry responsible for higher education. It contained the network design, the equipment, the local university-developed ERP, required skills, skills retention and the budget. It also assigned responsibilities to each university inf the consortium.

The main issues relating to access and connectivity were:

  • Internet access - if the government were to waiver its licensing requirement, there would be enough resources to design and build an academic backbone network.
  • Bandwith - collectively the overall budgets were enough to obtain good bandwidth provision, though individually institutions were getting mediocre service.
  • Technical constraints - different universities were facing different issues, but collectively there was enough skill available.
  • Access to information was highlighted as a challenge due to a host of reasons.
  • Human resource development.

Universities have the potential to be key drivers in local content production and dissemination. Another important element was gender imbalance. ICT cannot be a men-only club: gender issues need to be considered as part of all initiatives.

Unfortunately the proposal document did not have an impact, and it is important to reflect on why this is the case. Key questions one might ask are:

  • Why is the digital/access divide still widening when academic ICT leaders are willing to work together?
  • Why is it that finance was not highlighted as the primary issue when heads of ICT met, but became an issue only when it came to remuneration and skills retention?
  • Why is it that ICT professionals' requests and views are not acted on?

2.2 2.2.2 Primary vs. secondary barriers

Focusing more narrowly on OER, there are still some issues that are more important than others - primary vs. secondary issues. For instance, if a resource does not have a suitable open license it cannot be used; other issues preventing access will not matter. Similarly, localisation is important, but if a user cannot get hold of the content in the first place, then having the ability (or skill) to adapt content to the local context is irrelevant. Someone with no books at all might be quite happy to get hold of a book, even if it's not properly localised, or in the correct language.

Quote image Where (either in developing countries or in our own North American countries) the cost of educational materials such as textbooks or videos blocks access to a knowledge base, having access is a more primary issue than the ability to localize.

Primary issues may be particularly important in blocking collaboration and participation. However, we need to remember that even the primary issues, such as lack of bandwidth, can be mitigated by cleverly designing discovery and resource access.

Finally, to return briefly to the last quote, what does this "having access" really mean? Access is not a black and white issue. It is not a question of either having access or not having it at all. There are degrees of accessibility - shades of accessibility in between. Accessibility has different dimensions; dimensions that we will visit in turn.

3 2.3 Access issues to do with awareness, policy, attitude, culture

We now discuss the more individual issues, using the classification of different types of access barriers presented in the previous section. We begin by looking at access issues to do with awareness, policy, attitude and culture.

3.1 2.3.1 Access in terms of awareness

Story Image

On the lack of awareness and the lack of a critical mass of experts

Open Educational Resources are a solution to challenges facing the developing world: learning materials are scarce, costly and non reusable, yet the prevailing academic delivery paradigm is more suited to well-to-do societies. This story concerns a student at a university with little access to educational resources. The materials that were available came in paper form from the library or from lecturers. Students and lecturers were not aware of the existence of open resources that could alleviate the shortage at reasonable cost. Had there been OER experts or champions within the university, things could have been different. There was reliable Internet access, but there was still no access to OER.

So what hindered access to OER? The curriculum was based on traditional resources. Course reference literature was always defined in terms of physical books and journals. None of the learning tools were open. Years later the student became Head of ICT at a university and observed students going through the same cycle. However, even highlighting the existence of useful courseware and other OER did not lead to a paradigm shift. The key issues preventing access were still lack of awareness about the existence of OER, the non-existence of a critical mass of OER experts preventing the training of teaching staff, and the lack of OER skills on the part of staff.

As the story above illustrates, there is not enough awareness of OER. Individuals may not be aware of the existence of OER, the range of OER available - even the concept of OER itself.

Quote image Many people ignore that they have the opportunity to improve their knowledge freely through OER. They look very astonished when you ask them what they know about OER. I would like you to take ignorance as a serious barrier to OER, without forgeting the limition of access to internet.

3.2 2.3.2 Access in terms of attitude

Resistance to using resources developed by others, a fear of openness, and a fear of the new or unknown can be barriers to many. Lack of support in the form of an institutional or national champion can be an additional barrier, especially in the face of resistance and negative attidues. Some of these issues were articulated very widely, by participants from many different regions and cultures.

Quote image Fear of losing financial gain: in recent decades, there has been (as there is in most developed countries) fierce competition for the decreasing education dollar. In some states, some educational areas were supposed to finance themselves from the money they made - in most cases, delusional. So there is extreme unwillingness to share anything that might be financially rewarding - at least on the part of managers.

Fear of not being "good enough": if you share what you have done, your contribution may not be worthwhile; you may be exposed as being less experienced and/or less "educationally sound" than other contributors. This is a more minor motivation than the two above, but I believe it is a real disincentive where competition between providers means they are all spruiking themselves as being "world class" etc.

3.3 2.3.3 Access in terms of policy

An important policy issue is that sites that enable sharing of content (such as YouTube, which has a large amount of educational content) may be banned or censored in some institutions and countries. For instance, we may think that because of the appeal of YouTube to younger people, YouTube may be a good medium for delivering content aimed at younger people. While this may be true as such, we may find that some institutions block access to YouTube, for fear of distracting or inappropriate content.

Policy of course does not just concern particular sites, but is also relevant for the computer network as a whole, and in particular bandwidth use. Some interesting discussion on this can be found in Chapter 2 of the BWMO book, including a list of characteristics of good policy. Further discussion is also available here in our solutions section.

While these two examples were generic, policy can have an enabling function directly related to OER, for instance by setting policies to encourage users to use OERs, or to publish outputs as Open Educational Resources or Open Access research outputs. A small collection of such institutions and related stories is available here.

Add more here Bjoern 17:24, 10 July 2009 (CEST)

Will do! Bjoern 12:57, 26 August 2009 (CEST)

Done! Bjoern 17:38, 26 August 2009 (CEST)

3.4 2.3.4 Access in terms of language and culture

Language is a barrier to accessing an OER. One participant had this to say about working in a university in a non English-speaking country:

Quote image English Language is a barrier as well. 90% people can not read, write or speak English.

Lack of OER in local languages may be a particular barrier for speakers of some minority languages.

Of course understanding a language is about more than just being able to translate words and phrases:

Quote image I would add one additional barrier that is a variant on language: understanding and feeling comfortable with the mental

models, terminology, idioms and contextual examples of the OER. This could be referred to as a cultural barrier.

This leads to the related issue of localisation:

Quote image ... it struck me again how the learning objects are tied to the local culture. Illustrative examples and exercises in topics such as math and science are based on an assumption that the learner is familiar with our subway system, our popular culture, our local food, our winter based sports, and especially our idioms, metaphors and similes. Translation is going to take far more than translating the words and sentences. The learning objects will need to be localized as well.

Finally, we should distinguish between the language of the resource itself and the lack of metadata in a particular language (which reduces searchability).

4 2.4 Legal issues and access in terms of licensing

In many ways "open licensing" has become synonymous with "open educational resource". Today's users are more likely to be suspicious of something that calls itself "open" but is "all rights reserved" than they perhaps would have been just five years ago. So, while availability of suitable licenses is no longer a barrier, it was an important issue that needed to be resolved, and is an inspirational story to reflect on.

That is not to say that legal issues are no longer a potential barrier to OER provision and use. The "Findings and Interpretation" section of the Creative Commons report, What status for open?, highlights the following three issues:

  • The terms and conditions imposed by the OER provider are often difficult to find and to understand.
  • OER providers impose a diverse set of "open" conditions on users through their copyright licenses, some of which contradict the general understanding of openness.
  • The terms of different licenses are often incompatible with one another in a way that prevents combining materials from different providers.

Regarding the second point, use of non-standard licensing can create problems for the end user and be a significant barrier to adaptation and re-use of resources. For a practical demonstration of the final bullet point, see the Creative Commons Licenses Compatibility Wizard below.

CC licenses compatibility wizard. Illustration:

The existence of suitable licenses is of course important, but equally important is adequate practical training on copyright issues. Lack of training (and resulting knowledge) may not be a barrier initially, but may cause problems further down the line:

Quote image

I would also add, training in copyright issues, licenses and all those legal details, as they can become a problem later on if not dealt well with. We could call it "legal infrastructure of knowledge".

Keeping track of contributions to composite learning resources and their different licenses is another related problem. One solution would be to develop a system of automated attribution for composing learning resources, as well as a mechanism to check for license compatibility. See, for example, tools to support the development of libre knowledge resources or the OER life cycle. For related discussion, see Copyright and Open Content Licensing (part of the UNESCO OER Toolkit).

5 2.5 Technical access issues: provision of OER

In our discussion of access issues, we now turn to "technical" barriers to access. The solutions to the barriers presented in this section are principally on the provider rather than the user side. That said, the distinction between provider and user issues is overly simplistic. Many "provider issues" can be mitigated on the user side and vice versa.

5.1 2.5.1 Access in terms of file formats

Some formats are more accessible than others. The following statement was made with regard to adaptation/remixing, but it applies equally well to simply using the content in the first place:

Quote image ... more of the material [should] be made "easily remixable". This is not only a matter of licenses, but of file formats, etc. Already, people who translate OERs into Chinese are complaining about receiving PDFs with graphs and illustrations - if they had access to the original PPTs, they could much more easily change the language, or reuse parts. In this regard, sites like WikiEducators, Connexions and Open University, that presents the material in HTML, XML, Wiki markup or other "structured" ways, are preferable - but of course, this must be weighed against the desire to make a lot of material available quickly.

Ensuring greater access through the provision of resources in easily accessible file formats is the responsibility of the provider. They have access to the raw materials and can make additional formats available. It is harder for the user - particularly the non-specialist user - to mitigate this.

5.2 2.5.2 Access in terms of disability

Quote image Physical, emotional and learning difficulties provide a series of complex challenges in developed and developing world. The technology can overcome barriers (speaking web pages, Braille printers and so on). This requires good design and thought. In the UK Techdis has done some really useful work.

Disability access is a well-recognised issue, at least in the global North. A number of governments have developed policies relating to disability access and guidelines, such as those of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), are well established. In many ways it would unacceptable for a public institution to publish a website that did not meet WAI standards. In developing countries, however, where web penetration is so much lower overall, there may be less awareness of disability access issues.

5.3 2.5.3 Access in terms of discovery

If it is hard to search for and find resources, then it follows that it will be hard to access them. Resources need to have good metadata and need to be indexable. However, even if OER has good metadata, differences in curricula can make it hard to search across resources from different education systems:

Quote image ...the differences in curriculum making it difficult to get the precise information you need...

This is a provider-side issue, although it also speaks to the need for standards and general OER infrastructure.

5.4 2.5.4 Access in terms of ability and skills (available to the end user)

There needs to be a match between the skills required to access an OER, and the skills that the user has at their disposal at a particular moment in time (e.g. "Is the content in a format that users are likely to be familiar with, or one that they will find hard to use?"). This is relevant for use and reuse of content:

Quote image A lack of local skills and knowledge for adapting and revising OERs is a significant barrier. Without these skills, OER cannot be localized and made appropriate for use by the local community.

Another quote, again from a report by Philise Rasugu, illustrates this further:

Quote image Computer Literacy: Majority of students and teachers are not computer literate and those who have the opportunity to use OERs have very low computer literacy levels. One respondent stated that "unfortunately the majority of students are not computer literate, the curriculum is country‐based and there is very little country‐based information available for the students. Mostly one gets information on how the developed countries are operating since our country is currently recovering from civil war." And apparently, they live in remote rural areas where computers, like in many remote parts of Africa, are unheard of. (Philise Rasugu, 2006)

This is a user-side issue, although providers can take care to make their resources as easy-to-use as possible.

5.5 2.5.5 Access in terms of design information provided with the resources

Of course the "ability and skills" the end user needs are (to some extent) mitigated by what information is provided with the resource. That is to say, if only the (bare) resource is made available, it can be hard for a user to know what to do with it - where, when and how to use it. If additional information is shared, such as the learning design or production notes, then the resource will be easier to use. Moreover, this additional information offers a blueprint for creating similar resources.

Quote image We have found a lot of interest in using OER as a route to sharing the learning design (or should that be teaching design?) of how to structure online resources. Most materials do not explain how they are meant to work so someone who wants to reuse or change has to first be a learner. If there were an overview or consistent way to show designs then more reuse may take place.

6 2.6 Technical issues: reception of OER

6.1 2.6.1 Access issues in terms of infrastructure

Lack of access due to poor infrastructure was flagged early in the discussion as an overarching concern. Inadequate infrastructure is a particularly severe problem in sub-Saharan Africa:

Quote image ...upon further probing on how often they used/accessed OERs, a significant 55.8% indicated that they had occasionally or never used OERs, this was largely attributed to the technological or/and infrastructural challenges that African academics face. And thus, it can be concluded that OERs are largely underutilized in Africa. (Philise Rasugu 2006, p. 25)

Participants touched briefly on non-digital distribution of OER for regions and groups without access to computers or Internet access. Methods include distribution through paper, standard TV or radio. They are important where digital access is not available, although even they can be difficult to access for some:

Quote image Traditional resources (e.g. paper, traditional books etc,) are very expensive as compared to digital media (ebooks, audio and video material etc.).

Participants also stressed that infrastructure is not a black and white issue; it is not a question of "no access" vs. "full access":

Quote image [Poverty] ... is not the same as the technical access issues. In most developing countries, access is extremely expensive, and educators mostly have to use computers on their own time (and budget). In consequence, they have to make radical choices about how they use the internet: browsing and experimentation are often not options.

More often than not, the problem is not that there is no infrastructure. Instead, it is a lack of infrastructure combined with a lack of appropriate OER for resource-poor environments. With good bandwidth, a user can wait for a large resource to load or download. However, with poor infrastructure, that same resource will be inaccessible. It is important to note that there are two possible solutions: we can call for improvements to the infrastructure; but we can also call on producers to reduce the size of resources or make alternative formats available. So, although this is more a user-side issue, it can be mitigated in part by the provider.

6.2 2.6.2 Access in terms of internet connectivity and bandwidth

Access in terms of internet connectivity and bandwidth featured strongly in the discussion. The main issues are that:

  • there is little bandwidth;
  • where bandwidth is available, it is expensive.

Story Image Case study: the challenge of access in Eritrea

In promoting computer education in Eritrean schools and colleges, the contributor was faced with the challenges of lack of electricity, connectivity, teacher training, or capacity for maintaining devices. As an Assistant Professor of Education in Eritrea, the contributor's experience was to sit for hours in front of computers in internet cafes waiting for websites to open. While cities, such as Asmara, offered some access to internet, small towns and remote areas remained practically cut off from the world wide web in spite of there being computers in many locations. These challenges affecting the equality of connectivity and access continue to divide our world. We need to find more viable and sustainable solutions to develop access to educational resources.

In the context of OER, these issues are particularly tragic because, as this participant from Rwanda points out, these resources have been made freely available to be used - in some cases even without need of localisation or translation:

Quote image One of the barriers of using OERs in central and southern african universities is the issue of BANDWIDTH. They must pay very expensive for that and they have no money or/and the national authorities do not understand enough the importance and benefits of OERs for their education and do not consider them as a national priority.

The good thing is that these universities use European languages and don't need translation in their native languages. OERs can just be adapted to the local environment without translating in african languages.

The following story from Aptivate, a UK-based NGO on ICTs and development in several African countries, highlights an additional issue for low bandwidth environments.

Story Image Case study: the need for bandwidth management

An often overlooked point in institutional Internet accessibility is bandwidth management. It is true, as a discussion contribution from Rwanda reminded us, that bandwidth is particularly expensive in Africa. African universities typically pay thousands of dollars a month for the same capacity connection as a US or UK user might pay $20 for. But whatever size connection you have (however much bandwidth you have) you need to manage it well. An unmanaged network of computers connected to the Internet will quickly become clogged with viruses, spam, peer-to-peer traffic and other useless traffic. This means there is no capacity left to access things like OERs.

A few years ago, Aptivate were working in Ghana to improve the usability of a free journal access portal. In one research institution they realised that the main reason their network was performing so poorly was that it was flooded with viruses. Working with their staff to put some tools in place we were able to improve the speed of the connection by a factor of 15.

A 2006 African Tertiary Institution Survey found that almost 2/3 of universities practice little or no management of their connections. Universities have a hard time retaining skilled staff, there has been a lack of awareness among management and funders as to the need and means to build up good network administration and policy, less training than required and to some extent, tools are expensive and/or very difficult to use.

So managing your bandwidth well helps to make your internet connection more effective for academic purposes, and gives you more opportunities to access OER effectively.

This is an important issue, perhaps particularly because it receives far less attention. Connectivity is not just a question of the absolute bandwidth available, but also of how that bandwidth is managed. The reported improvement in available bandwidth by a factor of 15 is impressive.

This comment, from a participant working in Mexico, makes a similar point:

Quote image We often restrict ourselves to think only about the "physical bandwidth" to a certain location, and neglect to think about all the other factors that can impede transfer speed. I have similar experiences from a computer lab in a village in Mexico - I have never seen so many and fierce viruses in my life, busy spamming thousands of emails across the world, on a tenuous and expensive satellite link.

The following quote makes an additional point:

Quote image The flip side of the bandwidth problem is that OER resources are not often designed to work well over low bandwidth connections. Users sometimes give up after "bandwidth heavy" sites (lots of images, flash and less than critical scripting) keep crashing or are prohibitively slow to load.

Bandwidth is not just a user-side issue. Lack of access due to lack of (affordable) bandwidth is compounded by providers, who fail to make resources available in low-bandwidth friendly formats:

Quote image If OER projects want to be helpful for developing countries...there is a crucial need to develop resources accessible in low bandwidth...and by low...I mean almost dial-up!

Also, the emergence of the use of cellphones can contribute...but this is the reality of just a handful of countries.

I hope OER developers keep this in mind...

This view also received support from a participant in Brazil:

Quote image I would like to enthusiastically embrace the idea of working harder on bandwidth management. The Aptivate guidelines are very useful and edifying,[1] and more effort should go into making resources usable in low bandwidth environments (which is after all the target audience of this group).

Indeed, the issue of bandwidth drew comment from participants from all over the globe, eager to share their stories:

Quote image Working in ICT at a developing world university/academic instituition comes with many challenges restricting access. It is always difficault to setup the right infrastructure and design the right and the best bandwidth utilisation plan. (Zimbabwe)
Quote image Whenever I send the web sites of free available e-resources to our students, teachers and researchers they complain that they could not download the materials because of slow internet or some times non accessibility. (Pakistan)
Quote image Last time we participated on the identification of OER materials but what we faced was the trouble of having access to internet connectivity. ... became extremely expensive and at the moment some schools cannot even afford to continue to have this connectivity. Some have been disconected. ... If by chance you go to an internet cafe here in Zambia, the time you log in and the time you start accessing the internet you will discover that you may spend a lot of money because some of the internet cafes connectivity is very slow. No wonder people can't afford to utilise the resources from the internet. (IT/computer teacher at a Zambian secondary school)
Quote image There are institutions in developing nations which cannot afford dedicated bandwidth and have to share bandwidth to reduce costs; there are those that have to contract out their bandwidth and even website management. In situations like these, such institutions have no control over the bandwidth and thus cannot control the rate at which viruses attack not only their sites but through the sites their systems. (Nigeria)
Quote image ...not to forget the issue of the bandwidth, which is much exagerated by the cost. It is quite often to loose connection in a University because of the high bill to be payed. (Sudan)
Quote image With reference to bandwidth, this is an ongoing issue for teaches in my project. They cannot download videos, or watch them, because the CTC where they go to use the Internet has measured service via satellite, and once the bytes are used in a month, service is shut down until the bill is paid. This is a major impediment and also affects regular attendance at the CTC because freedom of usage and availability is placed in doubt. (Guatemala)

Finally, as US-based participant reminded the group that low bandwidth can also be an access barrier in remote rural areas in developed countries. The "digital divide" generally brings to mind the gap between developed and developing countries. But it may also evoke the gap between urban and rural areas within a country:

Quote image In some informal research I did on bandwidth management in developing countries because there was an interest at my institution in establishing elearning classes with African institutions, I read a number of documents on difficulties in access due to low bandwidth. I was struck by the number of times it was mentioned that viruses, spam, etc took over the desktop because there weren't any technically trained administrators on board who knew how to repair and maintain the system. Another problem was that well-trained network administrators quickly left for better jobs. Funders did not seem to include ongoing training of network support in their workshops. Where funding is concerned, the result is that the investment will then look wasted, for reasons that could have been avoided.

Interestingly, in the US, these same issues can affect colleges and internet cafes (however few) in rural areas. In my experience, the dichotomy between "developed" and "developing" sometimes ignores similar problems in access and technology usage that can afflict both.

To summarise the argument:

  • There is little bandwidth in the global South (often slower than dial-up, around 20kb/s).
  • Bandwidth is much more expensive in the South than in the North.
  • Institutional bandwidth provision is not optimised. Many improvements could be made by improving local networks.
  • Resources are not provided in low-bandwidth friendly formats. Often the websites that point to resources are not low-bandwidth friendly.
  • Internet access may not be desktop-based, but may be via mobile phone.
  • The issue affects large parts of the global South, as well as some rural areas of the global North.

It is worth noting that while improvements in bandwidth are under way, it will take a substantial time before the South catches up, particularly in rural areas ("last mile delivery").

One reason that OER providers make resources available may be to support international development goals. Yet many resources do not currently meet low-bandwidth accessibility criteria. While there is growing awareness of low-bandwidth issues, this awareness is yet to penetrate the OER community.

The present discussion highlights that bandwidth constraints are a primary barrier in access to OER. Other factors are undoubtedly important but, at the moment, a large proportion of the potential beneficiaries of OER are struggling with low bandwidth.

7 2.7 Notes

  1. Aptivate's Web design guidelines for low bandwidth environments can be accessed at