Broadband Changes Everything

Despite the high tech bubble burst a few years ago, one area has continued to grow beyond all but a few observers’ wildest dreams — broadband. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, home users of broadband have quadrupled since January 2000, and now represent about forty percent of the home online market. If current trends continue, broadband will reach seventy percent of the home market by mid-2005.

The remarkable growth of broadband has profound effects on distance learning. Innumerable organizations, private and public alike, have spent a small fortune creating online content designed for the lowest common denominator, narrowband user -- mostly text, graphics, and some very light weight interactives, content that can bleed its way through a narrow pipe.

Big problem, because broadband is a unique medium with its own affordances.

A good analogy would be the relationship between radio and television. Television is, literally, a higher bandwidth application than radio -- and in fact, was initially thought by many to be simply “radio with picturesâ€. However, the increased bandwidth television provided afforded users the ability to see full motion, which changed everything. Television quickly developed its own unique forms of storytelling, news, and so on, to take advantage of the unique medium’s affordances.

The same is true for the relationship between narrowband and broadband Internet content. The ability to send more data through the pipe completely changes the nature of the user experience. In addition to smaller data applications like text and graphics, now web content can contain full motion video streams, high-quality stereo audio streams, even complex animations and simulations. The result is a more involving, more emotive, user experience. So once again, increased bandwidth changes everything.

Broadband users can certainly access Narrowband content, just as it’s equally true that radio programs could be broadcast on television — and they practically were, early on. The problem, however, comes when users’ expectations change. Once people become used to richer multimedia experiences in news and entertainment, they will expect the same kinds of experiences in education, and content that doesn’t contain media streaming and elaborate animations will seem “very 1996".

The change in users’ expectations won’t happen overnight. Broadband needs a couple more years before it reaches the majority of the online population, then news, advertising and entertainment companies need to gain more experience and produce more broadband content before the bar will be raised for education.

But the bar will be raised, and a couple of more years is only a couple of more years. Can existing online content be upgraded to broadband with the simple addition of some video files and a couple of Flash animations? Isn’t that all you need?

Well, no. But that, my friends, is another story....

This article first appeared in the USDLA Journal and is reprinted with permission.

Written by: Craig Ullman