Net neutrality is a key feature in the operation of the Internet as we know it. But the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking to revise the policies governing the Internet. As it stands, net neutrality means that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differently based on user, content, site, or application. Instructional Technology Coordinator Zac Chase helps explain what net neutrality is, why it matters to education, and what educators can do to weigh in on a potential policy change.
The chances are good that you’re reading this article by way of an Internet connection. You clicked on a link, and your browser connected to a series of networks to bring you the bits and bytes of information to render on your screen. That, in simple terms, is how the Internet works. Aside from what kind of connection you use to access the Internet, you’ve likely never needed to think more about how you get information.
A possible overhaul of something called net neutrality could change all of that. A federal appeals court decision in January struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s rules regarding net neutrality, saying the FCC overstepped its authority by regulating a free and open net.
This may seem far afield from the world of education, but according to Online Principal Glenn Moses, that’s part of the problem.
“People aren’t going to become aware of it until it’s already happened,” says Moses, principal of Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy in Jefferson County, Colorado.
What, Though, Is Net Neutrality?
“Net neutrality gives us equal access,” Moses says, “The important part is, it doesn’t matter if you’re a small player or a large player. Everyone had the same ability to put up information and send information across the Internet, and that is now dying.”
Web Literacy Lead with the Mozilla Foundation Doug Belshaw explains it this way, “While you can pay for the speed of your Internet connection globally, you don’t pay for the speed of your connection to specific sites.” The data that is served up to your device, Belshaw explains, is served up impartially.
The death of net neutrality would mean the creation of a two-tier Internet, according to Belshaw. “Your ability to have a ‘fast’ connection to YouTube would not depend upon how fast your broadband speed was, but your ability to pay.”
Belshaw points to schools as an example of places that would likely get slower connections due to financial restrictions in what they could or would prioritize within their budgets.
Tim Vollmer, Public Policy Manager at Creative Commons, agrees, saying video is where the rubber hits the road regarding net neutrality, “And in education, video seems to be an increasingly important tool for teaching and learning.”
Vollmer wonders if platforms like Google will step up and provide free services for teachers and students or ask those users to pay to access their content at a faster rate through Internet Service Providers.
Vollmer also points to arguments by some that the end of net neutrality could also cloud out investment in new online ventures, since “those companies that want to create education-related products will be slowed because they can’t get the investment they need.”
Houston-Based Online Teacher and Learning Designer Stephanie Sandifer agrees. Pointing to Google’s recent announcement of its classroom learning management system, Sandifer wonders if smaller ventures like the free Edmodo will be able to compete with companies able to buy faster rates of delivery.
“If we didn’t have net neutrality in place,” Sandifer says, “then companies like Edmodo would have such an uphill climb to get in.”
Sandifer says slower access to new tools will mean fear of adoption from innovative teachers. “If an online resource or tool is too slow to access, teachers are going to drop it and pick up something that goes faster.”
Sandifer also points to the loss of net neutrality as another factor widening the digital divide tied to levels of education, race, geography, and income. According to a presentation by Lee Raine, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, only 62% of adults living in rural settings have broadband access at home compared to their urban and suburban counterparts, 70 and 73% of whom have broadband, respectively.
Chicago-based Education Consultant Lucy Gray also worries about the fall of net neutrality as a new factor in increasing the digital divide.
“If we’re still trying to get schools with adequate bandwidth, then this is another hurdle for them to jump through,” Gray says. “If there’s a whole other layer on here, then this changes the game, and they’re going to realize they’re not prepared.”
Such a realization compounds the current lack of preparedness reported by Education Superhighway. The organization, dedicated to ensuring adequate online infrastructure for all schools across the country, found that “72% of K-12 public schools in the U.S. do not have sufficient Internet infrastructure for digital learning.” And this isn’t simply a US-issue either, as the end of net neutrality in the States could have global repercussions. The Internet, after all, connects us all.
What Can Educators Do?
This threat of a compounded digital divide, greater financial burden for schools and families accessing online educational content, and the crowding out of the marketplace for people designing new products to assist learning may have educators and families asking what they can do to influence the outcome of net neutrality as the FCC continues to consider the issue.
Sandifer raises awareness with her undergraduate students as part of their discussion of electronic media. She says none of her students enter the class with an understanding of the issue if they have any awareness at all.
Chad Sansing, a teacher at Shelburne Middle School, Staunton, VA and National Writing Project Educator Innovator, recommends raising awareness “by discussing neutrality with students through interdisciplinary, civic engagement activities and projects about monopolization and competition.”
Like Sandifer, Sansing recommends making an understanding of net neutrality, the digital divide and the basic workings of the Internet part of schools’ curricula.
“Outside of school, educators can join campaigns to promote awareness about the importance of net neutrality and the open web,” Sansing says, “They can contact their legislators to urge support for neutrality.”
Belshaw and Moses agree that contacting legislators is an important first step in educators’ voicing their opinions on the status of net neutrality with Moses going a step further and suggesting people hand write their letters to increase the likelihood they are read by legislators.
Belshaw points to this page from savetheinternet.com for more details, and Moses recommends supporting and following the work of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The FCC is scheduled to consider the issue of net neutrality and a proposed revision of its rules at its May 15 meeting.
As the future shape of the open net in the U.S. is decided, Sansing suggests we consider, “What do we lose if we let companies limit the kinds of apps, services, and sites that make it into our schools, into our homes, and online our phones?”
- This lesson plan from Moyers on America is designed for use in high school social studies and language arts classrooms with the goal of introducing the idea of net neutrality, researching arguments for and against, and the drafting of an editorial related to the net neutrality debate.
- Self-described “recreational mathemusician” Vi Hart has this video explanation of net neutrality that could be deployed in any 6-12 discussion of the issue.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers action items, news blasts, and pathways to online activism around myriad modern electronic issues. For those at any level of awareness, their site offers a jumping-off point.
- FreePress.net has this page dedicated to taking up the issue of net neutrality, which will help visitors connect with legislators and leverage other social media in the interest of speaking up in favor of net neutrality.
- This digital book from the Google Chrome Development Team is a quick, detailed primer on the workings of web browsers, and the basics of connectivity.
Image credit: gualtiero