A broadband dilemma is hindering progress in e-learning. Andy Morris reports
In recent years, there has been a major shift to e-learning - web-based technology which allows tutors to manage courses electronically and students to get their course materials online.
This virtual learning environment has changed the way courses are structured and managed, and the way students learn. Having a fast internet connection is therefore becoming a fundamental need.
In the UK, most academic organisations have this connection through the Joint Academic Network (Janet). The size of the "data pipe" - the system that determines the speed of connection to the internet - is dictated by where you live and how much you can afford. A rural college will cost a lot more to connect than one in a city, where the telecommunications infrastructure is more readily available.
These connections are funded differently across the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have gone their separate ways since devolution.
In England, where the Learning and Skills Council is responsible, colleges have come off worse. Funding councils in the Celtic countries have an average connection speed of 100 megabits per second - about 10 times the speed of systems in England.
Yet across England the playing field is far from level. Large colleges have cash for a 10mb connection, while smaller ones have just 4mb - in other words, not very much.
To put this in perspective, broadband Britain offers the average home user between 1mb and 8mb per second.
If a college does not have the money to upgrade, students are likely to vote with their feet and go to a rival college where connection speed is assured.
So where does this leave England's colleges? Above the LSC-funded limit, colleges have to pay. This tariff is determined by Janet's managing agent, the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association (Ukerna).
In non-cable areas of England, this can mean that BT is the only supplier available - and that can be quite expensive. Some of these circuits cost more than pound;90,000 to install. But why pay for a Janet connection when an everyday broadband supplier is cheaper?
Besides which, funding is far too complex. The Department for Education and Skills outsources to at least three other agencies. A more complicated method of funding could not be imagined. Plus, the LSC's penchant for merging colleges has a hidden financial burden which, in effect, deprives a college of one funded circuit.
Information technology budgets are under great pressure, with financial staff juggling a shrinking budget with increased demand. It was recently reported that most schools and colleges are not replacing PCs because of financial constraints. In that case, asking for more bandwidth is hard to justify.
As bandwidth problems increase for those with choked circuits, other solutions are needed, such as filtering web content or prioritising web traffic, or banning bandwidth-hungry content and applications. If more centrally-funded bandwidth is not forthcoming, then the bandwidth bought in by a college could render the Janet link redundant.
What then for Janet? Would it revert to being a network for universities and research councils only? This would be a great pity because the opportunities to develop an education-only network - and the technologies therein - offer much to the sector. A private network is a great advantage in this respect.
But this raises questions. What does Janet offer to further education in England if it cannot deliver a cost-effective solution? And what would be the impact for Janet in the long term?
Certainly, the solution lies partly in streamlining the funding. Make the DfES pay Ukerna directly and cut out the agencies in the middle. This would liberate the latter from decision-making based on project directives and allow it to focus on meeting colleges' needs. With colleges receiving a 100mb connection to match their Celtic counterparts, they would be able to make a real difference - and perhaps e-learning would be in a better position to deliver on its promises.