Tips for Designing E-Learning for Folks with Slow Internet

Speedy access to the internet is easy to take for granted. Throughout much of the western world, high-speed internet access is almost ubiquitous. We simply assume we’ll have a good Wi-Fi connection wherever we are and whenever we need one.

But in many parts of the world, high-speed internet access is rare or nonexistent. In large portions of Africa, Asia, and South America, for instance, internet connectivity is entirely reliant upon mobile cellular networks. And according to 2016 data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 95 percent of the world’s population lives in areas covered only by basic 2G cellular networks. Over a 2G network, it can take nearly 30 minutes to download even one very simple app. Imagine how agonizing that feels if you’re paying for mobile network access by the minute. Downloading just one app can be an expensive proposition!

Even in the United States, where high-speed internet access is fairly common, there are still large pockets of low-bandwidth communities completely reliant upon mobile networks for their internet access. And even in areas that are better served by high-speed internet providers, bandwidth issues are common for people like retail workers and deskless workers, who may struggle with unstable cellular and Wi-Fi connections.

What does this mean for e-learning developers like you? Well, if most of the world’s population only has access to 2G mobile networks, and many more people have limited or unreliable access to the internet, the odds are pretty good that at least some of your learners simply can’t use the e-learning you’re working so hard to create for them.

People with low internet bandwidth are the one type of accessibility challenge you might not even recognize until your course is out the door. But there are some relatively simple things you can do to tackle this challenge before it’s too late. Let’s take a closer look at some helpful tips.

Get to Know Your Learners

One of the fundamentals of good instructional design practice is to know your audience before you start designing anything. Who are they? Where are they? What sorts of devices do they use to access e-learning? What’s their work environment like? These are critical questions you can ask to identify learners with a current or potential bandwidth issue. And once you know who they are and their constraints, you can identify the appropriate training strategies for reaching them.

Not sure what questions to ask to get to know your audience? Download this detailed list of needs analysis questions for some fresh ideas.

Wondering how to tell if your learners have a low-bandwidth challenge? Talk them through checking their connection speed using free tools like Speedtest or Fast.com.

Rethink Your Content Strategy

Once you know what your audience needs from you, it’s a good idea to think through how you’ll design content that will work well for everyone. Here are a few content strategies to consider:

  • Use microlearning: It’s helpful to break down big ideas into smaller chunks to support comprehension and retention of information. That approach is also helpful from a technology standpoint. Breaking down larger courses into smaller ones makes them quicker to load on mobile devices, especially over cellular connections.
  • Consider an audio-only course: Sometimes we get hung up on the idea of creating full-blown, slide-based e-learning courses, when what our learners really need from us is more accessible learning content they can consume on the go! An audio-only course is a great alternative for these learners. Audio files are a small fraction of the size of an HD video file and can be an engaging way to learn while driving or commuting.
  • Consider a text-only course: Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a book will agree that text can be an engaging way to learn! If you’re trying to come up with a lightweight way to reach everyone, try providing a snappy, well-written PDF that’s quick to download—and that learners can review from their mobile device.
  • Create a low-bandwidth version of your course: If you can target learning content towards a specific audience, or you only have a small, concentrated group of learners with bandwidth challenges, consider using strategies like the ones in this article to create a special low-bandwidth version of your course just for them.

Be Mindful When Using Video

Video content is rich and engaging and a great way to consume content on a mobile device. But if you’re a learner with an unstable internet connection, or someone who relies on a mobile network to connect, waiting for a video to buffer can be sheer agony. Save your learners from this experience with these tips:

  • Use video smartly: Video can be a great way to deliver content to everyone. You just need to be a little savvy in how you’re doing it! The following strategies can help:
    • If you can’t break up your courses into smaller chunks, at least break up your video! Aim for videos that are as short as possible—two to three minutes max—and break one longer video up into several shorter videos, if necessary.
    • For courses with lots of media, it’s a good idea to sacrifice a little quality to save on bandwidth. Some things you can do include compressing the video and reducing audio or image quality. These tactics will help reduce demand on the device as well as the learner’s internet connection.
    • Avoid having videos (or lots of layers or object states) on consecutive slides in the course. That will lighten the load time a little.
    • Design simple slides between multimedia-content slides. For instance, if the first slide in your project is a video, put three slides ahead of it to give your video content some time to preload. The first two slides can be fake “loading” slides. Then the third slide can remind the learner that the course has sound, with a button for them to hit “start.” All this is done to build in a delay. Making the first three slides lightweight gives the richer multimedia slides a little more time to preload in the background. That way the transition to those slides is smoother and the media loads more quickly.
    • Finally, consider outsourcing your video hosting to YouTube or Vimeo and embedding video into your projects. This approach keeps your course lightweight, and video hosts tend to do a pretty good job of balancing quality with bandwidth.
  • Consider avoiding video altogether: Even when compressed, video files can be large and consume a lot of bandwidth. If bandwidth constraints are a big problem for your learners, consider eliminating video from your courses and go with more mobile-friendly alternatives, like static images or animated gifs.

Get Creative with Course Distribution

What if you can’t design (or redesign) a course and you need to work with what you already have?

  • Encourage offline viewing: In most authoring tools, you can publish your courses for the web and then send learners a link to view the course in their web browser. This approach circumvents an LMS, so learner progress and scores won’t be tracked. However, this can be a smart way to share learning content that’s also used as performance support. You can even show learners how to view and then save your course to their mobile devices for offline viewing. That way they won’t even need an internet connection to view it later.
  • Distribute courses on CDs or USB drives: While courses published for CD (and/or loaded onto a USB drive) won’t track and report information automatically, you can make them more readily available to your learners with this method. You can also include a “print results” button at the end of the course, and then leave it up to the user to send a copy of the HTML page generated with their score to a manager or course administrator who’s overseeing their progress.

    Another variation on this idea is to distribute the course on CD or USB, but also create a separate online quiz to track the learner’s score. Quizzes are generally faster to load than an entire course and many work well over a dial-up or mobile network connection. You could use a quiz created in your authoring tool or use your LMS’s quizzing feature. It’s important to note that not all LMS providers offer a quizzing feature, so if you’re considering that option, it’s a good idea to check with your LMS vendor first.

More Learning

By getting to know your learners and their needs, and brainstorming some alternative design, development, and delivery methods, you can help your audience and your organization anticipate and overcome the challenge of sharing learning content with folks who have limited internet connectivity.

For more information about recommended browsers and mobile apps for viewing content created with Articulate 360, check out these Articulate 360 System Requirements.

What are your top tips for supporting learners with low-bandwidth challenges? Share them with us by leaving a comment below.

And while you’re thinking about it, follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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Joy Eliot
Maryanne Henderson
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Julie Day
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