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Open Learning: The Journal of Open,

Distance and e-Learning
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Distance education and the complexity

of accessing the Internets

Stle Angen Rye & Ida Zubaidah


Agder University , Norway

Universitas Terbuka , Indonesia

Published online: 22 May 2008.

To cite this article: Stle Angen Rye & Ida Zubaidah (2008) Distance education and the complexity
of accessing the Internets, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 23:2,
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Open Learning
Vol. 23, No. 2, June 2008, 95102

Distance education and the complexity of accessing the Internet

Stle Angen Ryea* and Ida Zubaidahb

University, Norway; bUniversitas Terbuka, Indonesia

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The focus of this paper is access problems distance students encounter when required to use
the Internet for their studies, and how such problems influence the students ability to gain
access to higher education. Empirically, the paper is informed by a qualitative case study of
a Masters programme in public administration offered to a group of students in a relatively
remote area of Indonesia. It shows how access problems certainly become a challenge for
such students, not only because of the absence of technology but also because of social
constraints related to the presence of technology. However, as there are often no proper
alternatives, new technology may well be considered a step forwards for such students, even
if the new technology to some extent creates serious problems.
Keywords: access to computers; distance education; Indonesia; Internet; technology

When open and distance education (ODE) has been developed by means of various technologies
in recent years, the target has often been marginalised groups or remote regions (Dhanarajan,
2001; Gandhe, 1999; Perraton, 2000; Rumble, 2001; Zuhairi, 2001). A serious problem regarding this is that those who are excluded from conventional universities are often the same as have
been excluded from the infrastructure necessary for using the Net as a part of their studies
(Warschauer, 2003b). It may be claimed that those who are in most need of Internet access to
connect to a university are the ones who are least likely to be able to access this Net. At worst,
the use of new technology in ODE may exclude students, leading to social exclusion rather than
social inclusion (Kirkwood, 2001; Perraton, 2001; Rumble, 2001). In the present paper, we shall
discuss this issue through an examination of an Internet-supported distance Masters programme
in public administration introduced to students in a relatively remote area of Indonesia. Two
important questions are asked: firstly, what kind of access problems do the students meet when
they are expected to use Internet technology for their studies? Secondly, how do such problems
affect the students possibility of accessing higher education?
Accessing the Internet
Concerning access to new technology, Kirkwood (1991) in the early 1990s problematised the
social repercussions of making computer use obligatory for Open University, UK students. He
considered this a potential threat against the liberal principles of an open university. Later he also
adopted a global perspective on the same issue (Kirkwood, 2001). Others, such as Rumble (2001)
and Perraton (2000), also warn against a situation where new technology might raise the quality
of ODE, but also exclude groups of students that were initially a target for such universities. They
ISSN 0268-0513 print/ISSN 1469-9958 online
2008 The Open University
DOI: 10.1080/02680510802051897

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S.A. Rye and I. Zubaidah

both pay special attention to students in developing countries as this is where the access to new
technology is most limited. Duran (2001) and Monge-Najera et al. (2001) share these concerns
regarding the use of new technology in developing countries, but do not pay attention to the
potential exclusion of students. Rather they chose to study how technological infrastructure is of
importance for the outcome from the study programme for the students already enrolled.
In this paper we follow up the aforementioned perspectives on technology in ODE by considering technology, namely the Internet, as a part of a social pattern where several conditions have
to be met before students can use it efficiently as a resource in their studies (Kirkwood, 2003;
Warschauer, 2003a). Moreover, and following Warschauer (2003b) and van Dijk (2005), access
to new technology is not only seen as a question of whether it is present or not, but also as a
result of how the technology is woven into social processes. Based on these considerations, a
main focus in this paper is on how the students daily environment renders possible access to
new technology. From this point we shall also critically examine how the use of new technology
affects the openness of open universities. Such an approach can be considered an extension of
already reported research where the students daily environments are considered essential to how
well they perform (Bhalalusesa, 2001; Grepperud, Rnning, & Stkken, 2005; Kember, 1999;
Murphy & Yum, 1998). This paper aims to continue in this vein by focusing on the Internet and
how it is embedded in the students daily life.
A case study of open and distance education in Indonesia
Empirically this paper is based on a case study of a distance education programme offered by
Universitas Terbuka (UT) (the Open University of Indonesia), which has recently made great
efforts to offer Internet support for its students (Belawati, Hardhono, & Anggoro, 2004; Suparman, Zuhairi, & Zubaidah, 2004). For undergraduate courses this is a supplementary service. By
contrast, all graduate programmes have incorporated the use of the Internet as a compulsory part
of study, at least by intention. One of the later programmes, a Masters offered to students in the
province of Bangka Belitung, constitutes the empirical ground for the rest of this paper. When it
was launched in 2003, this was the first graduate programme offered by UT and thereby also the
first programme supposed to use new communication technology intensively for all students.
The duration of this programme was estimated at four semesters, and students were expected
to remain in their jobs. Much of the study was independent work, but UT arranged online tutorials held eight times each semester and face-to-face tutorials at least three times each semester.
Both kinds of tutorials were compulsory; nevertheless, due to reasons discussed later in this
paper, this was a matter for negotiation. Moreover, students were also obliged to hand in three
short writing tasks every semester, to be assessed by a tutor, and at the end of each course there
was a conventional examination. All these activities were tightly scheduled through a study
guide, but the students were free to study at their own pace as long as they fulfilled the compulsory parts of the study and sat the examinations in the intended order. To support the students
independent learning, UT provided printed instructional materials such as text books for
students, and a CD-rom containing an interactive and visualised presentation of essential parts
of the curriculum. These materials were distributed to the students through the regional office.
Research methodology
The following discussion relies on a case study of how the use of educational technology became
a part of the daily life of the students participating in the aforementioned study programme
(Stake, 2003). The source of data is in-depth interviews with seven students, as well as informal
conversations with these and five other students. The interviewees were selected to represent a

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variety of experiences and views on the Masters programme in Bangka Belitung, which Patton
(2002) describes as maximum variation sampling. The aim of interviewing the students was to
explore how features of their daily life environment shaped their actions, and reflections on their
own actions. They were asked to describe how they arranged their daily lives, whereby the focus
in this paper is on these students descriptions of efforts to access the Internet so they could
study. The students were interviewed at their workplace or home so that their material surroundings could also be observed.
Problems experienced by the students
Access to computers and the Internet is limited and uneven in Indonesia (Wahid, Furuholdt, &
Kristiansen, 2004). Hill and Sens (2005) most optimistic estimate is that only 4% of the
population have access to new technology, with most of them living in the central regions. This
poor and uneven distribution of the new technology was clearly felt by the students in Bangka
Belitung. In interviews and conversations, all of the students talked about the severe problems
they faced when obliged to use the Internet as a part of their studies. These problems are also
clearly documented and confirmed by the university (Universitas Terbuka, 2004). Although all
of the students experienced difficulties using the Internet, the students who lived in the most
remote areas reported the greatest difficulties. One of these students reported not having used the
Internet at all; only the computer had been employed. By contrast, another student spoke of
the considerable benefits he had from using the Internet, while at the same time informing us of
the severe problems he had met when trying to gain access.
For a student who wants to access the Internet, Bates (2005) suggests there may be several
possible access points, such as on campus, at home, at a local centre open for open learning
students, at a public educational institution, at work, or at a commercial centre. The choice
depends on what is best suited for each individual student. For the students in Bangka Belitung
there was no campus or other educational institution with Internet access, and neither was there
a centre dedicated to distance students. So for these students there were only three options left:
the home, the workplace or a commercial centre. However, although these access points were
available, the students met serious constraints in accessing the Internet.
Firstly, all the interviewed students considered private access quite expensive, and those who
used private connections described the quality of transmission as poor. Theoretically, all the
students with whom we spoke could have accessed the Internet from their homes through a dialup connection, since they all had telephone lines in their homes. However, only two of the
students had tried to connect this way, and none of them used this option regularly. One student
explained the difficulties at home:
I tried once to make a connection, but it took many hours. The connection was really bad and it was
expensive. [] I had to look for other ways to connect to the Internet. I now try to use the Internet
at the office or maybe from an Internet caf.

This student was not satisfied with the quality of the private access facilities. The same student
also said the high price provided a further deterrent. This was corroborated by several other
students, and was interesting as all these students had a reasonably good income compared
with most Indonesians. At the time when the interviews were held, the cost was about 10,000
Rp. (ca. 0.8) per hour for a private dial-up connection. It seems that private Internet access for
educational purposes is suitable for very few students in a country like Indonesia. This is also
supported by the fact that private Internet connections are uncommon in this country (Hill & Sen,


S.A. Rye and I. Zubaidah

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Secondly, public access facilities were poor regarding both speed and stability. Moreover,
the only public Internet access points were found in Internet cafs, or warnet as they are often
called in Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), which provide the most easily available access points
throughout most of Indonesia (Kristiansen, Furuholdt, & Wahid, 2003). However, in Bangka
Belitung there were only a few Internet cafs, all of which were situated in the city of Pangkalpinang. Another critical point is that Internet cafs are commercial enterprises that require
payment from the users. Although they were considerably cheaper than private dial-up connections, at 4000 Rp. (ca. 0.3) per hour, they were still considered expensive by several students.
So even when the students had access to the necessary physical infrastructure to access the Internet, the costs involved were still a constraint. As one student said:
[] about the on-line tutorial; usually I cant stay so long because of the cost of using the Internet.
[] but the line is ok, at least if I go there in the evening or during night-time. But in the daytime it
is terrible, it is so slow.

At the beginning of the course, UT signed an agreement with a national Internet provider,
which aimed to ensure student access to a fast and stable connection at a discounted price at a
local Internet caf. In the end, however, the Internet provider chose not to prioritise Bangka
Belitung, and plans for a new satellite connection never left the drawing board. According to UT,
they did not find such a venture profitable, as the market in the province was too limited (Head
of the Computer Department at UT, personal communication, 23 March 2005). Hence, the
students were left with a regular commercial solution of questionable quality. The location of the
Internet cafs in Pangkalpinang proved to be another major obstacle, as some of the students
lived as far as three hours away. Students living in nearby towns also did not consider travelling
to Pangkalpinang an option for regularly accessing the Internet. They would use it occasionally
when they had something else to do in Pangkalpinang.
Thirdly, access through the workplace was limited. Some of the students had Internet access
at their work but it was claimed that the quality was poor. The students also said they were usually
too busy to use the Internet during working hours. The computers were also often used by others
or situated in a place that was not suited for studying. Overall, it was apparent that the workplace
was not a suitable area for accessing the Internet for study purposes. One of the interviewed
students, who had both good computer skills and an Internet connection at his workplace, may
serve as an example of this. When asked if he used a computer during his work hours, he answered:
I just read some books. I hardly use the computer, it is too busy, and it is difficult to concentrate.
[] Sometimes I use it, but only when there is no other person there. I prefer other options.

This student preferred to go to an Internet caf located close to his home but he sometimes also
went back to the office after working hours as he would then be able to concentrate on his
studies. None of the interviewed students regularly used the computer and Internet resources
available at their workplaces. The few students who tried to do so arranged their day so they went
back to the workplace when there was no one there.
Fourthly, most students had limited skills in using information and communications technologies (ICT). This was a hindrance to the use of technology in whatever location. From the interviews, it seems that the initial entrance requirement saying the students should be computer
literate was not met. This is perhaps not very surprising since few of the students superiors had
much knowledge of the use of ICT, according to the students. The training offered by UT was
limited as the students were expected to have the necessary skills for following the courses. In
reality, several students claimed that their first experience with computers was through UT. One
expressed it in this way:

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It is difficult to understand how to use the Internet, so I dont use it much as part of my studies. I got
to know the Internet for the first time when I started my study at UT.

In fact, few of the students seemed to have skills necessary to operate a computer and the Internet
efficiently. Many of the students needed help from others, such as their subordinates, children,
families, and friends. Those students who could handle the technology themselves were by no
means advanced users. This is not surprising as there were relatively few computers in Bangka
Belitung. With a single exception, technology had never been an integral part of the students
daily lives. The few other students who had one or more computers at home mainly used it for
games for the children.
To sum up, it seems that most of the students had significant problems in accessing the Internet, whether at home, in an Internet caf or the workplace. As shown in the interviews, it was
not enough that the technology was present at one of these places, other conditions had to be met
as well: the technology had to be accessible at a place where the students could reach it without
too much effort; the technology had to be located at a place suitable for studying; the students
had to be able to pay for using it; and the students needed to be skilled in the use of a computer.
In accordance with Kirkwoods (2003) and van Dijks (2005) arguments, this series of obstructions acted as a steeplechase on the students way to accessing the Internet for educational
purposes. Only one student managed to overcome all the obstacles and benefited substantially
from using the Internet. He was the only one who clearly could see the advantages of using ICT:
[The Internet] is helpful in enriching my knowledge on related subjects. I can find a lot of references
that are useful for my learning tasks. With the use of the Internet, I no longer only rely on books and
handouts since I can search other sources from the Internet.

However, this students situation and background were quite different from most of the other
students. He was one of the youngest students and lived in a city not far from an Internet caf.
He did not have Internet access at home, but had reasonably good computer and Internet access
at his office. He had recently studied in Yogyakarta, a student city with the highest density of
Internet cafs in Indonesia (Kristiansen et al., 2003). There he had acquired basic computer and
Internet skills. However, even this student was constrained by the poor Internet access in Bangka
Belitung and limited financial resources.
Access problems and participation in higher education
From the outset, the students in Bangka Belitung were excluded from conventional universities,
at least if they were to maintain work affiliation and continue living at the same place. In
response to this situation, UT tried to connect the region to a university system by the use of new
communication technology. However, at a first glance, this strategy seems to have had only
limited success because the students were unable to connect to the Internet in the intended
manner. Still, due to UTs efforts, the students in Bangka Belitung became a part of Indonesias
system of higher education. But, as shown earlier in this paper, they were excluded from significant parts of their education due to limited access to online tutorials and digital learning
resources. What saved these students from being totally excluded from enrolment at UT was
that they could maintain their student status because UT did not strictly enforce the ICT requirements. Thus, they could work their way around the initial technology barrier and continue their
studies, despite the UTs attempt to introduce ICT as a compulsory part of the study.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering that even though the students saw the use of ICT as
problematic due to limited access, this was not exclusively an ICT-related problem. Accessing
and using other kinds of technology could also cause problems. The postal system, for example,

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S.A. Rye and I. Zubaidah

did not always work very well so students in the most remote areas delivered their assignments
to the regional office by sending a colleague rather than by mail. In addition, the regional office
did not risk distributing instructional material through the postal system; students had to pick it
up themselves at the regional office. In addition, there was also little or no access to libraries and
bookshops. The few bookshops and the two public libraries on the islands did not, according to
the students, serve their needs, and they were all located in the capital city, Pangkalpinang.
In other words, access problems were not limited to the use of the Internet, but reflected the
generally poorly developed infrastructure in the area. Moreover, it is not surprising that the
students living in the most remote parts had the biggest problems because of the lack of basic
infrastructure. Thus, for these students there was no alternative to the use of Internet. This underlines the fact that those who do not have access to new technology are typically the same as those
with poor access to higher education (Warschauer, 2003b). Therefore, when the students
described the use of new technology as problematic, this does not necessarily mean that ICT is
considered a bad alternative to other existing technologies. Even poor Internet access was a step
forward for the students and gave them better access to education and learning resources. The
generally poor level of infrastructure in Bangka Belitung, then, probably explains why the
students did not openly object to the use of ICT, despite the small benefits gained and the problems they encountered. Indeed, if proper Internet access had initially been an absolute requirement, the great majority of the students would probably never have been able to enrol in the
Masters programme, and the results would have been what Perraton (2000) and Kirkwood
(1991, 2001) warn against exclusion.
Concluding discussion
This paper has explored problems distance students living in a relatively remote part of Indonesia face when expected to use the Internet as part of their studies and shown how access can be
a challenge for the development of Internet-supported ODE. These problems were, in Bangka
Belitung, caused by a combination of factors: the quality of the connection, students financial
constraints, distance from the students homes to the technology, the location of technology in
places not suitable for studying, and limited digital knowledge among the students. Thus, the
investigated students could not access the Internet in an appropriate way and it could not become
a significant tool in their learning processes. Compared with students with proper access, it can
be claimed that these students were excluded from important resources for conducting their
study. Nonetheless, the students did not consider the use of Internet a serious problem due to the
fact that they did not a have a proper alternative to the new technology.
What can be learned from this is that for students in remote areas even a limited and problematic access may represent an advantage. For this reason, this study supports Warschauer
(2003b), who argues that analyses of Internet access in developing countries should go beyond
the limited view of have or have-not. Many distance students in developing countries who are
participating in Internet-supported education are probably to be found some place in between,
like the students in Bangka Belitung. They have access, but the access is limited and difficult.
The distribution of low-cost technology, as James (2003) suggests, may help promote access to
Internet-based education in a country like Indonesia and places like Bangka Belitung. However,
even though the presence of technology is a necessity, it is, as shown in the present study, not
sufficient to facilitate the students access to the Internet.
It should also be noted that the reason why limited Internet access did not create a critical
situation for the students in Bangka Belitung was because access to the new technology was not
strictly necessary for following the study programme. It was rather an additional resource for the
students learning process. Making Internet use an obligatory activity may turn out to be a cause

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Open Learning


of exclusion from higher education rather than a study resource. Kirkwoods (1991) argument
regarding obligatory use of computers as a source for exclusion seems to be valid still, at least
in large parts of the developing world.
This leaves educators with a tricky question; should advanced new technology be expected
for students living in remote areas with limited infrastructure? The present study does not
supply an obvious answer to this question; however, the experiences from Bangka Belitung
may suggest that even though access problems are a great challenge, new technology can still
be a step forward for students. Indeed, just because these students are surrounded by poor
infrastructure, the relative value of the Internet becomes higher than for those who can easily
access the net. However, when new technology is used for such students in remote areas, it
should not be with too strict instructions regarding its use. Moreover, educators should be
prepared for alternative ways of communication so the students do not become excluded when
access fails.

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