What about an Open Educational Resource Torrent Tracker?

There are many resources on the Internet dedicated to open educational resources. Some are sites, for example Curriki, that provide online communities for sharing such resources. Others are search sites such as CC Search that provide links to open licensed resources throughout the Internet. The one variant that I have not yet found is a Torrent site dedicated to open educational resources.

A torrent, or more accurately a BitTorrent, is a decentralized peer to peer file sharing network protocol that is very effective for quickly moving large amounts of data across the Internet. A user, known as a seeder, who wishes to share a file must have a torrent client. Then they submit their information to a tracker, a site that coordinates the file sharing. Through the client and the tracker, a user makes the file available to others users to download. In turn, those who have downloaded the file share the file as well. The files are hosted on each individual’s hard drive rather than a central point. Once enough users have downloaded the file (and become seeders), data transmission can be very rapid.

Torrents tend to have a bad reputation because they are often used to share pirated software, music, and movies. Illegal sharing of textbooks is becoming more prevalent and has been blamed for falling textbook sales and even the closing of campus bookstores. In fact, there are those that call for the systematic scanning of textbooks for sharing as a means of countering the outrageous prices of college texts.

This is not what I am talking about. It seems to me that decentralized peer to peer sharing could be a powerful tool for sharing and distributing open licensed education resources. It employs distributed resources and storage rather than a central repository.

One potential problem would be users sharing materials that are not appropriately licensed. This problem exists on other platforms as well. While perusing Curriki for a curriculum project, I encountered a number of resources that were of questionable or even clearly commercial copyright terms. Such an undertaking would require a diligent community that polices the available content.

Another problem is the temporary nature of availability of the content. Over time those sharing the file (seeders) tend to dry up making downloads slow or just unavailable.

I am not necessarily advocating the use of torrents for sharing open educational resources, but I find the possibility interesting. I am interested in hearing other’s thoughts on the matter.

4 comments

  1. Matt Leifer’s avatar

    One issue is how high the storage and bandwidth costs are for these open educational resources. If it is mainly documents, pictures, slides and the like then I am guessing they would be pretty small. If there are a lot of videos then there might be a better argument for bittorrent. Basically, you almost always get a much faster download from a server than from peer-to-peer services, so I’d say go with the server if you have the resources for it.

    My own experience with bittorrent is that it works very well for time-sensitive content. For example, if you want to get hold of the latest version of a popular linux distro that has just been released then it will be pretty fast, but for older, less popular things it can often take several hours or even days to download something and the number of seeders seems to decrease something like exponentially over time. Therefore, if you are trying to make a stable repository of content that does not degrade over time then it is not really the right choice.

    One final issue is that, presumably, this hypothetical torrent site would be intended for use in schools and colleges. A lot of educational institutions have locked down their systems with hyper-protective firewalls and the like. Therefore, there are likely to be problems accessing the ports required for bittorrent.

    If your main concern is with centralization, i.e. you are worried what happens if one of the repositories that you use disappears or is inaccessible, then you could consider having several mirror sites as an alternative to the peer-to-peer strategy. This works very well for the arXiv for example, as well as many software download sites.

    1. Steve’s avatar

      The reason I thought of this is that I am considering how to share my body of instructional presentations. Some are quite large due to embedded videos. It’s not so much that I thought torrents would be the best solution, but I’ve been reading about torrents being used to download pirated educational resources. I suppose “pirated” is the main reason torrents are used rather than efficacy in sharing and distributing data.

      The point about use within educational institutions is well taken.

      Without a doubt, torrents will not make a good stable solution for sharing in my particular instance. Nor could I imagine want to run a tracker. I still wonder if there is a place for such in the OER world. To take the other side, torrents might not lend to a perception of legitimacy.

      I look at sites such as Curriki to share my fifth grade content, but I do worry about continued funding and existence of such endeavors. I could use multiple venues, but that multiples the work. One consideration in any solution is to share as broadly as possible without redundant effort. In a comment on this post, Nathan Garrett mentions an interesting project that he is working on for sharing presentations.

    2. Stian Håklev’s avatar

      I think archive.org is a good place for content that is openly licensed, I’ve stored several of my talks as MP3s there. The interface for discovery is still lacking, but it can host the files themselves, and then you can blog the link, or it can be in a wiki of presentations, etc. There are unfortunately many problems with Bittorrent as mentioned above, including that it often takes a very long time to download files, depending on how many are seeding, etc.

      However, Bittorrent has a huge potential, and the one reason I might support something like what you just mentioned, would indeed be to give it more credibility. In Canada, almost every single ISP does very strong throttling of bittorrent activity (down to 20kb/s)… The more legitimate content is available in this form, the less easy it becomes to defend this form of control (already several TV stations, both CBC and Norwegian state broadcaster has used Bittorrent to distribute TV programming for example).

      And Bittorrent is still a very powerful technology for anyone who wants to distribute very large files to a lot of people, without paying huge hosting fees. Let’s say for example that Wikileaks had another Iraqi war recording, and somehow the US government convinced YouTube and archive.org etc that they could not host it. In that case, throttling Bittorrent is really an issue of freedom of speech.

      1. Steve’s avatar

        I’ll look into archive.org. I know I have found a lot of good OER resources on it.

        I agree that part of the appeal of the Bittorrent protocol is the fact that allows widespread sharing in a distributed way that cannot be controlled easily by government or corporate interests.

        I never thought of OER use of torrents as potentially lending legitimacy to the protocol.

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