Net neutrality changes expected to have big implications for education


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to repeal the landmark net neutrality framework put in place by the Obama administration, paving the way for a restructuring of internet traffic — one with near-inevitable implications on both K-12 and higher education.

The five-member, Republican-majority board voted along party lines to pass FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s sweeping proposal, the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” despite a determined effort by activists, educators, consumers and U.S. lawmakers to stop or reschedule the vote until the commission had heard more public concerns on the matter.

With these changes, which repeal policies established in 2015, internet service providers (ISPs) are no longer required to treat all online traffic equally. That means ISPs — like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast — can operate the internet like a utility, and that they can create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for content. The concern among many educators and their advocates is that educational content — especially the kind that is free or open source — will often end up in the slow lanes, with severe consequences for schools and students, especially in low-income and rural areas.

In a letter sent to Pai on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, 16 U.S. senators — including Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, as well as Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — urged the FCC chairman to delay the vote so the commission could consider how the proposed changes might “harm our nation’s students and schools — especially those in rural and low-income communities,” they wrote. The senators, none of whom are Republicans, noted that the 210-page draft proposal did not mention “student” or “students” once.

In spite of this request and a movement on social media, the vote came during the FCC’s originally scheduled meeting.

Under the new plan, Pai said, “the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet” and the FCC will, instead, “require internet services providers to be transparent about their practices.”

Critics of the proposal, including many educators and proponents of educational technology, say the vote was rushed. Pai revealed his official proposal on Nov. 22. Thursday’s vote came 22 days later.

What to expect in higher education

“After Dec. 14, higher education will face a new online world — one in which the almighty dollar, not equity, will reign,” wrote Joseph South, the chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and Eden Dahlstrom, the executive director of the New Media Consortium, in a commentary featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month.

Richard Culatta, the CEO of ISTE, said the changes won’t be apparent immediately, but they will eventually appear.

“I think the piece to realize is that, Thursday or Friday, we’re not going to see much of a difference, right?” he said during a recent interview with NPR. “But over time, I actually am very worried. And I think we all should be worried about this because the types of material that students, teachers are looking for don’t help the bottom line of internet providers.”

In their article, South and Dahlstrom suggest that those who support the repeal of the Obama-era rules have not yet realized the role the internet plays in education.

“Today, a college campus without robust and ubiquitous internet access is unthinkable,” they wrote. “The internet, and interactions with internet-connected devices and applications, is part of the daily life of millions of college administrators, faculty and staff members and students. The internet enables communication, collaboration, research and transactional activities that permeate, if not define, campus life.”

Imagine, for example, a student whose college uses a learning management system to post curriculum resources, facilitate discussions among classmates, turn in assignments and take exams — that’s virtually every college today. But if that student can’t afford high-speed internet in her off-campus residence — on top of tuition, housing, meals, books, etc. — she wouldn’t be able to access the course materials or collaborate with other students from her home.

“Tiered pricing of internet access based on content … could limit her access to education and perpetuate her disadvantaged status,” they wrote.

Thursday’s vote may also lead to ISPs favoring entertainment-style websites over educational or academic ones, they said.

“There’s a major concern that commercial, revenue-generating internet traffic will take precedence,” South and Dahlstrom said. “The quality and consistency of access to research, libraries, educational institutions and learning materials could be degraded as those resources are moved to the slow lane to make room for commercial and entertainment traffic that can pay for speed.”

“Anything short of open, unfettered access to the internet,” they said in conclusion, “would slow the speed of research, delaying scientific discovery and invention.”

Consequences for K-12 districts

The FCC’s decision Thursday has left K-12 district and technology leaders with many unanswered questions.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released a statement soon after the vote, calling it “disappointing and concerning,” and saying that schools and districts now face a “bleak reality.”

“The internet has long been a linchpin in educational innovation, cultivating unlimited ideas for using broadband networks in new, exciting ways,” CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said. “Today’s decision hobbles the internet’s promise — with unexpected consequences to come.”

“We hoped the FCC leadership would have carefully considered the implications for teaching and learning before making such a drastic move,” Krueger added, “one that leaves communities with more questions and worry in its wake.”

The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) also weighed in on Trump administration’s net neutrality changes.

“Students and teachers — especially vulnerable learners in rural and low-income communities — must not be disenfranchised by this,” the association wrote in a statement. “SETDA urges the commission to take the steps required to deliver a level telecommunications and digital learning playing field for the nation’s schools.”

The American Library Association released a statement prior to the vote saying it “strenuously opposes” the net neutrality changes.

“Preserving net neutrality is essential for equitable access to online information and services and thus a vital concern for our nation’s libraries,” Jim Neal, president of the ALA, said. “We strenuously disagree with the FCC’s actions and will continue to advocate for essential net neutrality protections.”