Is Online Access to Higher Education at Risk?

Open access for everyone to all corners of the Web has been a defining principle of the Internet in the United States; one that has made it essential and ubiquitous in our lives today. It has certainly revolutionized the notion of access to higher education, as anyone with an Internet connection is able to conduct research and take courses online.

Equal treatment of every kind of content on the Web, dubbed “net neutrality,” is being challenged, however, as the Federal Communications Commission considers two opposing proposals regarding Internet service.

The first proposal would create rules allowing Internet service providers (Comcast, AT&T, TimeWarner, Verizon, etc…) to charge more money for faster connection speeds. For now, it appears ISPs would only be able to charge content providers (i.e., companies and organizations who are the sources of websites) different rates for different speeds, meaning in the future, your Netflix movie could stream more easily than the content delivered by your local library. However, this precedent may make it easier for ISPs to create a tiered service and pricing model for end users (i.e., individual users like you) resulting in you paying more for a better connection.

The second proposal, supported by many including the New York Times, calls for the reclassification of broadband services to be similar to public utilities, thus preserving net neutrality.

Whichever policy is selected will replace existing net neutrality rules struck down in January when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined the FCC had no authority to enforce such rules. Knowing any rule will face an uphill court battle due to the FCC’s limited authority, content providers in existence for the public good face an interesting choice of philosophy; principles or pragmatism.

At this point in the evolution of Internet policy, many educational organizations have decided to advocate for the preservation of net neutrality as is, and the idea that knowledge should be free and open. In conflict with this position is an ever-building collection of examples where legislation is lobbied for, supported, and approved for the benefit of larger corporations.

Rather than fight this, some including William F. Baker, Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham University are advocating for a more practical approach. Mr. Baker has suggested creating space for the public sector to have access to the faster lanes at no additional cost, potentially paid for through taxes on profit-based content providers.

For this idea to catch on, it appears at least a few instances of rules being accepted then litigated will need to occur before education advocacy groups consider compromise. They are currently standing firm that all Internet usage should be equally accessible.

While the creation and enforcement of Internet service rules is in flux, either of the aforementioned proposals would meet the needs of education providers and students. Your class lecture would still load as quickly as it does now, real-time video office hours with your instructor would not lag, and instructors and technology development professionals would continue to bring new interactive tools to classes using the Internet’s full capabilities. This likelihood allows us to focus on a larger concern: will the “goats yelling like humans” video buffer so often it is unwatchable?

Thus, it is our hope as learners and educators that either proposal that passes will allow educational content to remain accessible at the same speed it is today.

Since May 15, 2014, the FCC has received more than one million comments from groups and individuals with an opinion to share regarding the free use of the Internet. That’s more than have been submitted for any other FCC rule. No matter if you’re an instructor, student, or if you simply value education, you can add to this growing number of voices—be sure to tell us what you say, and share this important information with others. The fate of online access to education is in our hands.

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