Technology Advances since starting my Master's Degree

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There were a lot of updates to technology since I started my Master's degree, and the changes have influenced the way distance education can and may be implemented. These are fairly dated, as I originally wrote this entry back in 2005, so please bare with me. ^_^

Technological Advances
The most important technological advances that have been made in the past year and a half are the creation of WiMax wireless communication, the release of Firefox as a browser, the increased development of 64-bit processors, and the release of Mac OS X Tiger. These advances bring distance education closer to each student and instructor with increased speed, security, and performance.

WiMax Wireless Communication
WiMax wireless is a new protocol that allows for wireless speeds of up to 70 Megabits per second. That, of course, isn’t too impressive. Wired networks through a Gigabit connection is at 1,000 Megabits per second. What’s truly amazing about WiMax is that the range of the connection is up to 30 miles, while still maintaining a connection speed of 1 Megabit per second (WiMax Technology article, 2005). This is roughly the same speed of a T-1 connection, which many businesses run off of now.

So what are the implications of this? It means that a reliable, strong wireless connection can be made in even the most remote locations, allowing for broadband Internet access to be brought to even rural areas. As a major limitation for online students in those rural areas, the new availability of wireless broadband Internet increases potential distance learning students. Schools, both secondary and university level, will have the potential and ability to increase their student body without needing to increase the physical campus.

Firefox Browser
The Mozilla group, an open-source organization that had worked on browsers and web rendering in various forms, released Firefox. For a long time, the main complaint amongst users of the Internet were either the bulky performance of complex and all-inclusive browsers like Netscape or Mozilla, or the security concerns that came with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Because of the proliferation of Windows, the largest market share had gone to Internet Explorer.

With the release of Firefox, there was finally a browser that had a small imprint, had the speed off Internet Explorer, but yet was amazingly secure and safe to use. Bugs and issues were quickly found and fixed, maintaining the safety and security that the general user had looked for in an Internet experience. In fact, since it’s release, Internet Explorer’s market share has dropped from over 95% to under 90%. Websites, such as eBay, have realized that they need to cater to additional browsers, instead of just Internet Explorer (Mozilla.org article, 2005).

So how does this effect distance education? Most learning management systems require browser access, and as Internet Explorer loses market share, it’s necessary to design courses to work with all browsers, and not just one. This requires more work on the instructor’s side, in order to cater to each of the browsers that are likely to be used. This means designing the courses for Internet Explorer and Firefox, as well as Mac’s Safari. Ultimately, it would mean simplifying the HTML code to basic code, instead of using a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor. This is because your WYSIWYG web page editors like Front Page or Netscape Composer tend to include additional code that is specific to their platforms they cater to.

64-Bit Processor
The 64-bit processor is an innovation that increases software productivity, provided that the software has been designed for it. Generally, it means that software or program rendering is done with additional speed, such as rendering video or processing database entries. Servers benefit the most, allowing for increased database performance, server response time, and therefore more number-crunching power (Langberg, 2005).

How does this benefit distance learning? Students are able to access their material faster and with better response times while using a server with a 64-bit processor. But it doesn’t stop at the server level. Instructors using a computer with 64-bit processing power can render video in real time, stream video and audio from their system. For example, Apple has built in 64-bit software for High Definition imaging and video processing. It also allows for better software clustering, increasing the processing power by adding additional Macintosh computers together.
Macintosh OS X: Tiger

When Apple and released their Unix-based OS, many thought that it would be the doom of the company. Instead it gave the Macintosh, which was already well designed through the user interface, a stable and versatile basis that became very popular with the growth of Linux and Linux programmers. With the release of Tiger, their latest version of the Mac OS, systems are more easily clustered, provide better security, and allow server systems to be installed on a desktop for easy offline development (Apple website article, 2005).

How does this benefit distance learning? The first benefit would be the server side. Showing the versatility and power of the Unix format, Mac OS X Tiger integrates many of the strengths of an open source environment that otherwise would be associated with the Linux movement that is constantly being attacked by Microsoft. Mac OS X brings apparent legitimacy to the open source movement, and sets a level of performance that needs to be met. This means that future educational environments can be developed and implemented on a Mac OS system. An excellent example would be my implementation of Moodle, an open source learning management system, on my Powerbook. This makes it easier to develop course material offline.

Conclusion
There are a number of technology advancements that have made, or will make, distance learning easier and more effective. That being said, there are also a number of innovations that will make designing a course more complicated, or more specialized. Learning at a distance requires keeping up with the latest technology releases, because so much can change in such a little time. Here, with the release of new wireless technology, new browser technology, processing power, and innovations in server-side technology, learning management and course design becomes an exercise in organization.












Resources
Anonymous, WiMax Technology WiMax Forum website, found at HYPERLINK "http://www.wimaxforum.org/technology" http://www.wimaxforum.org/technology on 5/30/2005

Anonymous, Firefox: Rediscover the Web, Mozilla.org website, found at HYPERLINK "http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/" http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/ on 5/30/2005

Langberg, Mike 64-bit upgrade is right move for Microsoft, The Seattle Times, Business and Technology section May 30th, 2005, found at HYPERLINK "http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2002292806_btsoho30.html" http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2002292806_btsoho30.html on 5/30/2005

Anonymous, Mac OS X Tiger Overview, Apple website found at HYPERLINK "http://www.apple.com/macosx/overview/" http://www.apple.com/macosx/overview/ on 5/30/2005