I’ve got some back of the cranium wonderings about educational uses of BitTorrent — if this has not yet crossed your scope, check out the January 2005 Wired article The BitTorrent Effect (no, the article does not star Ashton Kutcher as BT creator Bram Cohen):

BitTorrent lets users quickly upload and download enormous amounts of data, files that are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than a single MP3. Analysts at CacheLogic, an Internet-traffic analysis firm in Cambridge, England, report that BitTorrent traffic accounts for more than one-third of all data sent across the Internet.

Ok, the primary use the record and movie companies quiver about is the illegal trading of copyrighted movies and music (cue the violins). But the way the technology works to enable fast downloading of files is of interest.

The problem with P2P file-sharing networks like Kazaa, he reasoned, is that uploading and downloading do not happen at equal speeds. Broadband providers allow their users to download at superfast rates, but let them upload only very slowly, creating a bottleneck: If two peers try to swap a compressed copy of Meet the Fokkers – say, 700 megs – the recipient will receive at a speedy 1.5 megs a second, but the sender will be uploading at maybe one-tenth of that rate. Thus, one-to-one swapping online is inherently inefficient. It’s fine for MP3s but doesn’t work for huge files.

Cohen realized that chopping up a file and handing out the pieces to several uploaders would really speed things up. He sketched out a protocol: To download that copy of Meet the Fokkers, a user’s computer sniffs around for others online who have pieces of the movie. Then it downloads a chunk from several of them simultaneously. Many hands make light work, so the file arrives dozens of times faster than normal.

Paradoxically, BitTorrent’s architecture means that the more popular the file is the faster it downloads – because more people are pitching in. Better yet, it’s a virtuous cycle. Users download and share at the same time; as soon as someone receives even a single piece of Fokkers, his computer immediately begins offering it to others. The more files you’re willing to share, the faster any individual torrent downloads to your computer. This prevents people from leeching, a classic P2P problem in which too many people download files and refuse to upload, creating a drain on the system. “Give and ye shall receive” became Cohen’s motto, which he printed on T-shirts and sold to supporters.

As pointed out in a parallel Technology Review article Digital Movie Forecast: BitTorrential Downpour, an interesting aspect of BitTorrent’s decentralization is:

unlike Kazaa, or Napster before it, BitTorrent has no central interface through which users can search for files. “Programming a good search interface was pretty tough,” says Cohen, who lives in the Seattle area. “I decided to make it someone else’s problem.”

Other uses pointed out in the article include computer game companies pre-releasing versions of new games to seed interest. Also, distributions of open source software such as Fedora are taking advantage of BT.

So what might be going on in the education-iverse? Is there any thinking yet on BT? I did some quick googling and came up more or less dry. The first site Filesoup.com – A BitTorrent Technology Community mentions “eduction” in the sense of educating people about the technology (a good resource BTW).

And while I have grumbled about the limited use of big chunks of linear content (see Yawncasting) and commented Will’s Podcasting Blues thoughts– I would not say there is not a place for efficient use and sharing of large hunking files.

So maybe it is a way of sharing full sized versions of Digital Storytelling. Or maybe sharing of very complex desktop simulation programs. Or even if they were really worth the weight, (I cannot believe I am writing this) a big old fat PowerPoint with embedded audio. I would think there should be interest in a way of providing large sized files of educational use between institutions beyond just plunking them on an FTP server and saying, “hope you have a good time downloading”.

Again, it is the concept and social aspects of BitTorrent I find compelling. Imagine educators (and learners) around the world who are able to share and contribute as “swarms” of interest areas like French Literature, Egyptology, Encryption Algorithms, Classical Music….

Anyway, The BitTorrent Effect is a good read.

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. For me it’s the distributed nature of the ‘network’ that’s more interesting than the ability to download large files. I’d have to rack my brains a bit more to think of v large file size learning materials that people would want to download though I guess to parallel the primary use of BT then videos are an obvious example. Maybe the reason there’s little high quality video in e-learning materials is because of the bandwidth? Or maybe it’s just because a QuickTime video of a lecture, an obvious starting point, would be too pointless/boring. I dunno. But Boxmind (http://www.boxmind.com/products/electures/collection.asp) couldn’t find a market for this with the best lecturers available. As for the P2P, folk have thought about P2P for distributing learning objects before (e.g Erik Duval’s LOMster). Whatever happened to that? I guess for edu-nap-torrent the big problem is just finding something compelling enough to want to download?

    And while I’m here, Happy New year! Maybe 2005 be spam free!

  2. Before someone elese leaps to what I missed in this post- BitTorrent only “works” where there is a significant demand for a file. Define significant? I don’t know- but there is apparently no or litttle speed increase if yuo are the only one interested in an item.

    Hence the subliminal promotion of “swarms”…. what could form and sustain them?

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