Broadband and CALL

Posted June 2004: Allen H. Kupetz debunks three myths about broadband. See Kevin Ryan's article, "Closing the CALL Gap in Japan," Essential Teacher, Summer 2004 (pp. 32-35).

The definition of the term broadband changes almost as fast as the speed at which those 0 and 1 binary digits (bits) traverse telephone lines, the cable company's coaxial cables, or the airwaves via the magic of wireless. About 10 years ago, a broadband modem sent bits over the copper wires used by telephones at the rate of 19,200 per second (19.2 thousand bits per second, or 19.2 kbps). Five years ago, many people still had 56 kbps broadband connections. Today, a technology called digital subscriber line (DSL; see DSL Forum,http://www.dslforum.org/) can use that same copper to deliver data at about 1,000 kbps (1 million bits per second, or 1 mbps). A cable modem offers similar speeds, but they vary somewhat depending on the number of people using the cable simultaneously.

How Fat Is Your Data Pipe?

A more lasting definition of broadband used by professionals in the field is a fat data pipe. The fatter the pipe (i.e., the more bandwidth, or bits per second, it can carry), the more broadband it is. A typical 100-person corporation in the United States is likely to have a T1 connection to the Internet, meaning a pipe that can send and receive data at 1.54 mbps. The European equivalent is an E1, which sends and receives at 2 mbps. Most of the rest of world uses one or the other, depending primarily on where a particular country bought the hardware used in its network.

Wireless broadband confuses this definition a little more. The most advanced mobile wireless broadband networks in the world are in Japan and can deliver up to 384 kbps to a cellular telephone (cell phone) or a personal digital assistant (PDA). (On current commercial Japanese wireless developments, see What's FOMA?, n.d.,http://foma.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/fun/.) Fixed wireless networks, like the 802.11 wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks (see Wi-Fi Alliance, http://www.wi-fi.org/) in Starbucks, transmit data at about 11 mbps, with the actual throughput seen by the user approaching 4 mbps (4,000 kbps)--about 10 times faster than mobile data rates.

Thus, the speed of your broadband connection is capped by the technology you are using, and the technology is capped--in most cases--by the laws of physics. Most telecom professionals will paraphrase an old adage and tell you that you can never have too much bandwidth.

ASPs + Broadband = Cheap, Accessible CALL

The functionality of computer-assisted language learning (CALL), like that of many technology-driven teaching aids, is greatly reduced in narrowband environments. Broadband allows an application service provider (ASP) to deliver software faster and less expensively for students and teachers. (For a general definition of ASP, see Dictionary.com,http://dictionary.reference.com/; for a more detailed explanation and several real-world explanations, see "How ASPs Work"; Brain, n.d.,http://computer.howstuffworks.com/asp.htm)

An ASP stores software on a central server, rather than individual users having to download it to their host machines. This central storage is critically important for several reasons. First, many users who don't have their own computers go to Internet cafés or the local library to use one. CALL courses using an ASP model can be accessed from any machine, anywhere in the world. And because there is no CD to distribute, the software supporting a CALL course can cost a fraction of the price per student than would otherwise be the case.

Three Broadband Myths Debunked

If broadband is so great, why doesn't everyone in the academic community use it? It is likely the result of three broadband myths:

  1. Most students don't have access to broadband.
  2. Most teachers don't have a curriculum that requires broadband and aren't inclined to develop it.
  3. Most academic institutions can't afford broadband.
Broadband Is Here

Students do have access to free or affordable broadband worldwide, and they are among the most likely demographic groups to insist on access to it. From Starbucks to the public library, from neighborhood community centers to Internet kiosks in shopping centers, broadband is available. And students will find it, especially if their teachers have created content that offers a learning experience these students would not otherwise have.

If Broadband Is Available, Teachers Will Use It

Teachers given access to broadband will develop bandwidth-intensive curricula tailored to distance learning and other CALL-related courses. Broadband increases the types of material that can be used in the virtual classroom.

Broadband allows teachers to use, for example, graphic-intensive files such as interactive games, Microsoft PowerPoint slides, and streaming video clips to recreate the feel of a brick-and-mortar classroom for distance learners. In addition, some software, such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting (see http://www.placeware.com/) gives teachers the power to talk to remote students and turn pages of a PowerPoint presentation on their own--and the students'--computers in real time.

Free software (e.g., Microsoft NetMeeting; see http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/; Yahoo! Messenger; see http://messenger.yahoo.com/) allows teachers to talk to students at no cost to either party. And some commercial software, such as WebCT (2003; see http://www.webct.com/) or Blackboard (2002; see http://www.blackboard.com/), is especially designed for teachers. Using these tools allows teachers to give the same high-quality education in remote, CALL-based courses as they would to students in the classroom.

Broadband Is a Good Investment

Academic institutions in the United States that invest in broadband for their teachers will realize an immediate return as a result of an increase in potential addressable students and in teacher productivity. U.S. federal grant money is available for everything from distance learning (see Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loans and Grants, 2002,http://www.fedmoney.com/grants/10855.htm; Office of Postsecondary Education, n.d., http://www.ed.gov/programs/disted/eligibility.html) to educational technology innovation (see Office of Innovation and Improvement, n.d., http://www.ed.gov/programs/techinnov/). The costs of a dedicated T1 line for use by the distance learning center can be as little as US$300 per month--a cost that is easily offset by the addition of just a single new student.

Although T1-equivalent bandwidth is probably more expensive outside the United States (generally because the incumbent--often government-owned--service provider faces less competition), economies of scale will result in virtually any country. Any recurring operational costs for broadband to the institution can be easily offset by adding just a few more students. And once the cost is covered, every additional student the institution attracts because it can offer more innovative CALL courses is 100% margin to the institution. In other words, the opportunity cost of adding an online student approaches zero, so the revenue from that additional student is all profit.

As Broadband Goes, So Goes CALL

As broadband data rates increase (and they will), so, too, will the possibilities to use CALL as well as the types of CALL applications that are made available. More bandwidth will continue to provide CALL developers and students with new and interesting options for enhancing teaching and learning.

Resources: Dictionaries of Internet-Related Terms

Newton, H. (2003). Newton's telecom dictionary. Gilroy, CA: CMP Books. Available from http://www.harrynewton.com/

WhatIs: All categories: Internet: Internet technology terms. http://whatis.techtarget.com/definitionsCategory/0,289915,sid9_tax1670,00.html

Webopedia. http://www.webopedia.com/

References

Blackboard [Computer software]. (2002). Washington, DC: Blackboard. Available from http://www.blackboard.com/

Brain, M. (n.d.). How ASPs work. In HowStuffWorks. Retrieved April 14, 1004, from http://computer.howstuffworks.com/asp.htm

Distance learning and telemedicine loans and grants. (2002). Las Vegas, NV: IDI Magic Technologies. Retrieved March 15, 2004, from http://www.fedmoney.com/grants/10855.htm

Office of Innovation and Improvement. (n.d.). Technology innovation challenge grant program. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 15, 2004, fromhttp://www.ed.gov/programs/techinnov/

Office of Postsecondary Education. (n.d.). Distance education demonstration program: Eligibility. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 15, 2004, fromhttp://www.ed.gov/programs/disted/eligibility.html

WebCT [Computer software]. (2003). Lynnfield, MA: WebCT. Available from http://www.webct.com/

What's FOMA? (n.d.). Tokyo: NTT DoCoMo. Retrieved March 15, 2004, from http://foma.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/fun/

Allen H. Kupetz (http://www.kpartnerz.com/), an adjunct professor for international affairs at the Hamilton Holt School of Rollins College, in the United States, served as the telecommunications policy officer for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 1992 to 1996.