There is an apocryphal story that has no basis in fact, about how the US space agency, NASA spent millions of dollars developing an ‘astronaut pen’ that would work in outer space, while the Russians fixed the problem much more cheaply and quickly by using pencils.
What the story reminds us that sometimes the low tech solution can be a better choice than trying to utilise a high tech solution.
With the current situation impacting on learning and teaching, there is a lot of talk and posts out there on how to deliver online teaching, many of these talk of the use of tools such as Zoom, video and Teams.
Normally when working from home I have all the bandwidth, but with “forced” home working and now we schools are closed, it won’t be just me wanting to use the internet. Now the rest of the family will be wanting to use my bandwidth….
This scenario also won’t be isolated to you and your home. Your neighbours may also be working from home, or using the internet so the contention ratio may rise as more people try and use the same data capacity.
There will be numerous companies and organisations running online meetings and calls. Schools are expecting their students to access online resources through tools such as Google Classroom, but also other online services such as Doddle and Hegarty.
You can imagine the increase in demand for streaming services such as Netflix and iPlayer as well for people who are self-isolating.
There will be an impact on these services as multiple people start to use them more than would normally be expected.
There is only so much bandwidth and as demand rises for bandwidth it will cause dropouts and buffering.
It won’t just be restricted to home broadband, but also mobile networks.
Vodafone has said it is experiencing a 30% rise in internet traffic across its UK fixed-line and mobile networks.
The FT reports on the EU asking streaming services to limit their services (behind a paywall).
The EU has called on streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube to limit their services in order to prevent the continent’s broadband networks from crashing as tens of millions of people start working from home.
This will have an impact on how you work, if you depend on connectivity. For calls and meetings. You may find asynchronous low bandwidth communication and collaboration tools a better option than the full functionality high bandwidth tools you are use to.
The same can be said for teaching online, we might want to deliver lectures live using a tool such as Zoom, even delivering lectures asynchronously using lecture capture may not be easy. Before it might have been possible to have a Teams video meeting instead of a tutorial, today it might be more challenging.
Some are saying, well my broadband seems to be working okay, but we also need to consider the student as well.
Some universities have already advice in place for this kind of challenge.
LSE now advising staff to think about asynchronous and low bandwidth online learning activities.
The LSE tweeted out their advice where staff may be teaching students with restricted internet access.
#Coronavirus: You may be teaching students with restricted internet access. To help ensure a smooth learning experience for yourself and students, keep in mind our guidance summarised below.
For a full breakdown of provisions, visit our dedicated page: https://t.co/sHxQByh82a pic.twitter.com/tcH5IgqKWW
— LSE Eden Centre for Education Enhancement (@EdenLSE) March 18, 2020
They have a web page offering advice and guidance – Teaching and learning provision for students in areas where internet access is restricted.
So how can we create low tech and low bandwidth learning activities?
Generally when asked to move to online delivery, people often think that the easiest thing to do is to translate what they do in the physical academic environment and move it online.
This means conversions such as I normally deliver a lecture, so I will use a live video stream to deliver that lecture to my remote learners.
Likewise, I usually run a seminar to discuss a topic, so I will use a Teams video conference to for the discussion.
These are in the main high tech and high bandwidth activities which may work from a delivery perspective on your broadband connection, but not necessarily work at the other end on your students’ devices and connections.
Well there are some simple technical things you can do that could make the life of your learners easier.
Move from video to an audio stream
Video requires a lot of bandwidth, moving to an audio only stream requires a lot less bandwidth. However you should think about how you might need to adjust the way in which the content is delivered if you are only using audio. Radio is different to television and those differences should influence th design of how you deliver the content or teaching.
Go with asynchronous delivery rather than a live stream
Minimise file sizes
Because internet connectivity can be slow and inconsistent in some regions (or for the reasons about contention outlines above), it is advisable to keep file sizes to a minimum.
The University of Reading has an useful site on compressing files.
The key thing to think about is, that proprietary files are usually quite large, so converting to another format such as PDF may help to reduce file sizes.
Similarly, providing an audio only version of a video file can help those who have slow internet connections
Avoid proprietary file formats
So you have Office 365 and a licence for Powerpoint, do your learners have the same software if you share a Powerpoint file? Yes you can use some online services to convert the file, but do your students know how to do that?
Will your students, who no longer have access to the IT labs on campus, have a device that can access the teaching you are delivering? They may only have a mobile device, so does your content work on mobile.
Having said all that, another option is to think about the design of the learning to work in a low tech low bandwith environment..
It might also be useful to design activities that work asynchronously, so aren’t dependent on a continuous live internet connection to work.
Lectures can be recorded and downloaded, but what about using other forms of content, such as books, journals or other work as a stimulus for learning? Content can be more than just lectures.
So for example instead of running a seminar to discuss a topic, using Teams video conference, move to an asynchronous format using a discussion forum.
Debates can be asynchronous as well, through a discussion forum. In many ways this can be a different debating experience with the opportunity for all students to make their point.
You can use high tech tools that require decent technology and bandwidth, but sometimes you can make do with a pencil.
4 thoughts on “…and the Russians used a pencil”
thanks James, usual for the global South and rural areas (and a similar comparison was often made between the Kalashnikov and the M16)
Great article. My only concern is around the dislike for proprietary file formats. I understand it – from a device perspective, a PDF is much easier to use and most can open these without any additional software. A PDF is, however, much harder to edit and use from an accessibility perspective. A native Word or PowerPoint file is almost as readily supported, and if you have Word/PowerPoint/Open Office/Google Docs/Pages/Keynote it is fully editable. You can take notes in the document. If you are dyslexic, you can change font and colour preferences more readily than a PDF.
I would recommend providing both the proprietary file format and a PDF equivalent. It’s also worth baring in mind that most VLEs and file share sites offer viewers for most common files so they can be read in browser without any software.
Choice is critical, if you are on a mobile device, you may not be able to open some files.
The other thing is that, unless you have done it before, it’s not that simple for example to open a PowerPoint file in Google Slides.
Good food for thought. Thanks