Many internet users (i.e., people) cheered when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net neutrality rules in February. But the so-called open internet has its critics, too. As net neutrality faces threats from some internet providers and lawmakers, proponents of equitable education are weighing in on the importance of these protections for young learners.
The new FCC policy prohibits internet service providers (ISPs) from giving preferential treatment to content creators or companies that are willing to pay more for their data to be distributed faster. Likewise, ISPs can’t slow traffic for those who don’t pay. The FCC says ISPs must serve as neutral channels for all information, without regard to who is supplying or receiving it, the nature of the content, or how much data a website uses.
In the education world, we’re well aware of the barriers some communities and kids face in accessing digital content. But regardless of the kinds of devices they have (or don’t have), most teens are connected to the internet in one way or another. When Pew researchers surveyed teens in 2012, they found 95 percent were online. In Slate’s blog Future Tense, Vikki Katz and Michael Levine discussed their study, which revealed the lengths to which low-income parents go to get their kids connected to the web.
But what happens when the internet itself is stratified?
When net neutrality suffered a major blow in a January 2014 court decision, many speculated that companies, when charged to distribute their content, would push the new costs onto consumers. Net neutrality advocates usually use Netflix to illustrate this point. The popular website, which uses massive amounts of bandwidth, would likely be charged for this privilege by ISPs and would likely let consumers pick up most of that tab. But educational sites would be just as vulnerable as major online repositories of TV shows—and they may be less equipped to handle new costs.
Formal and informal learning spaces depend on unfettered access to digital content. In many cases, schools, afterschool programs, or libraries are the only places kids can access the ever-expanding trove of online information. A school librarian made the case for net neutrality in Wired last year. “School, public, and college libraries rely upon the public availability of open, affordable internet access for school homework assignments, distance learning classes, e-government services, licensed databases, job-training videos, medical and scientific research, and many other essential services,” Barbara Stripling wrote.
Threats to digital learning don’t concern only schools. At Remake Learning, we’re fans of connected learning, which encourages young people to bring their personal interests into the classroom and forge connections between their interests at school, home, and online. In addition, many schools are trying flipped classrooms, where students watch lectures at home and do “homework” in class.
Stripling underscored what the lack of net neutrality would mean for young learners’ creativity and preparation for a modern-day workforce. “The fact is that many of the innovative services we use today were created by entrepreneurs who had a fair chance to compete for web traffic,” she explained. “By enabling Internet Service Providers to limit that access, we are essentially saying that only the privileged can continue to innovate.”
Education is a content-creating field. Net neutrality ensures educational content providers enjoy the same freedoms as their counterparts in other industries do—and that independent educational companies are allowed the same exposure as those with more financial backing.
“It’s not hard to imagine . . . a network where the video for courses from the University of Phoenix or Coursera run quickly, but those from edX and your local community college run at slower speed and lower resolution,” California State University’s Michael Berman told Campus Technology. Katz and Levine pointed to Spanish language education and news websites that would likely be relegated to the “slow lane” of internet traffic without FCC protection.
These educators know net neutrality is an equity issue. Young people deserve equal access to all information, and educators shouldn’t have to field obstacles to reach an eager audience of learners.