Will Net Neutrality Reversal Hurt Digital Learning? As Vote Approaches,...

Higher Education

Will Net Neutrality Reversal Hurt Digital Learning? As Vote Approaches, Mixed Opinions

By Tina Nazerian     Dec 12, 2017

Will Net Neutrality Reversal Hurt Digital Learning? As Vote Approaches, Mixed Opinions

Many university faculty members and higher-ed advocates are on edge this week over an upcoming vote by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday that may reverse net neutrality.

Some education experts have already penned that the vote is likely to pass, potentially raising the cost of accessing learning and student-success tools, prioritizing commercial and entertainment traffic over education and research, and slowing the pace of research and innovation. And while their concerns run deep, some faculty—ironically, who teach online—say they are less worried than what some higher education instructors might assume.

Tracy Mitrano, an attorney who used to be the director information technology policy at Cornell University, holds an opinion on the issue that’s common among academics. She believes there’s a lot at stake for higher education if net neutrality is reversed, especially when it comes to distance learning and hybrid education.

The internet is currently categorized as a utility, but the FCC wants to re-categorize it as an information service. Mitrano, who is running for congress, says a benefit of keeping the internet’s current categorization as a utility means the FCC is able to use methods like taxation and regulation to leverage for-profit companies to bring internet to rural areas.

But Charles Severance, a University of Michigan professor who also teaches massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, doesn’t think higher education will be terribly affected, he tells EdSurge. He points out that higher education institutions don’t have the large amount of traffic that, say, a company like Netflix has. He adds that wealthy higher education institutions also often have more than one network connection, such as Internet2, which he explains won’t take advantage of the reversal of net neutrality because it is “a national network that is collectively owned by universities.”

As for the universities and colleges that aren’t wealthy, Severance adds that in general, the smaller the university, the less likely they are to “originate [the] high-volume data” that would cost more.

Instead, Severance thinks those who decide to start companies, especially companies that use a lot of bandwidth, might feel the repercussions of the reversal more so than colleges and universities. High-tech startups including virtual-reality, augmented-reality and even gaming companies would likely take the hardest hit, he thinks.

He stresses that the harm that will befall society if net neutrality is reversed is that internet service providers will be able to make money without improving their infrastructure. And slowly but surely, he says, we will end up with a “sewage system” of a network that we’ll have to pay more for.

To be clear, Severance sides with other academics who oppose the reversal of net neutrality, and he thinks the FCC would be making “net discrimination” legitimate if the vote passes.

As for how reversing net neutrality will affect online education companies like Coursera, Severance says the effect will be “slowly but surely.” It won’t be obvious at first, he predicts, but, users and the company will feel the effects in the form of gradual rising costs.

“Right now, everybody who's watching a video, whether they’re paying for the course or not, is incurring some cost to Coursera,” the professor says. “If 10 years from now or five years from now, that cost has doubled, tripled or quadrupled their core cost, then they’re gonna have to change their business model.”

Kentaro Toyama, another professor at the University of Michigan, thinks that large companies are “already eroding” net neutrality even under the current policy. “I believe current worries about the loss of net neutrality are overblown,” he told EdSurge in an email.

Toyama goes as far to say he believes there’s no such thing as ‘“net neutrality’” independent of the technical systems running the internet—and adds that “those technical systems are predominantly paid for and operated by private companies, which exert a lot of control.” Still, he claims he sides with those who support net neutrality.

“I think overall that while proponents of net neutrality are on the right side in the abstract, the specifics of net neutrality are such that this particular policy is just one of many, many issues that affect any given consumer of the internet, and that most people will not see a dramatic difference,” Toyama says.

Toyama, who also teaches an online course called “Understanding User Needs” on edX, agrees with Severance, saying he doesn’t think the reversal of net neutrality will affect his online teaching.

“Though there might be some marginal impact on the degree to which online courses like mine could be viewed by any given student, it is unlikely to be at a level noticeable by the average user,” Toyama says.

On November 28, FCC chairman Ajit Pai remarked that many “critics don’t seem to understand that we are moving from heavy-handed regulation to light-touch regulation, not a completely hands-off approach. We aren’t giving anybody a free pass.”

But some critics aren’t reassured by the chairman’s statements. Joshua Clarke, a junior at UMass Amherst, says he’s taken several online classes, and believes that getting rid of net neutrality “could hamper” the ability of students like him to take online classes and access different resources that they need.

“For the everyday student, just accessing resources to study for a test or do a research project could be affected,” Clarke says. Clarke and three of his classmates organized an event that took place last week to draw attention to their concerns and why they support net neutrality.

If the FCC does reverse net neutrality, Mitrano thinks that net neutrality supporters will file a motion in court to delay or reverse the decision. However, she admits it's hard to tell if those legal challenges will be successful.

Meanwhile, Severance hopes that these companies will perhaps “go too far, too fast” to the point where all the sudden, everyone’s Netflix price doubles in a week. “It’s not going to happen this way, because these companies are too smart,” he says. “But if they get greedy right away, and they hold everybody hostage, and the cost of Netflix goes up by a factor of two,” then he thinks more people might begin understand the “consequences of making net discrimination legal.”

Clarke, the UMass Amherst student, says he’ll continue to advocate for net neutrality whether or not the rule is changed.

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