The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on December 14, 2017 to reverse 2015 regulations mandating equality in access to and traffic on the internet. The previous regulations prohibited companies from purchasing greater speed and presence to the disadvantage of others who share use of the internet. The move by the FCC has been widely criticized by public officials, content producers, and internet activists. On the other hand, free market advocates are hailing the return to pre-2015 freedom.
The ruling comes at a time when educators are beginning to understand and take greater advantage of what the internet offers to learners. After years of tapping the internet primarily as a source of information to be consumed, educators are helping students to become creators and contributors by using internet tools and space to generate new learning, support collaboration with other learners and experts from around the nation and globe, develop their new ideas, and create new products and future business opportunities. It would be tragic to curtail the potential of such a powerful force for learning.
Some are predicting an internet future where those with the greatest resources will control what can be seen and accessed via the internet, while emerging internet-related enterprises, educational activities, and civic interests are squeezed out, or at least are under-supported. Still, it is worth remembering that net neutrality regulations have been in place for less than three years, so the change does not shift long-implemented conditions. Further, it will take some time before rules and guidance regarding the decision are in place and any significant implications will take some time to emerge.
So, how should we view the withdrawal of net neutrality regulations and what should we do in response? History reveals that when events of this nature occur, new challenges emerge, but so do opportunities.
Clearly, students and educators have a stake in what will happen next and over the long-term. However, we must be informed and thoughtful in our response. Over-reaction and panic likely will serve little purpose, nor will it generate much in the way of benefits. We can start by becoming informed about the forces driving the decision and implications that are predictable in the near and longer term.
Obviously, we need to monitor what comes next and stand ready to advocate for free and equitable access to this potent source for learning. This issue does not have to be partisan. Advocacy for equal access on behalf of learning and education is worthy of everyone’s energy and commitment. We can contribute to the dialogue by collecting and sharing examples and stories of how the learning of our students has benefited from this powerful resource. Also, we can use this opportunity to imagine, predict, and plan how the internet can be even more impactful in the future. Members of the media and policymakers need concrete, local examples to fully understand the implications of this issue.
The net neutrality issue also offers an excellent opportunity to engage students in building an understanding of how their lives may be affected. The internet is an integral part of the daily lives of most students. A threat to its availability holds natural attraction for young passions and learning. We can engage our students in researching the issue and its implications. We might schedule a debate about the pros and cons of the decision and potential implications for students. This also can be a great opportunity for students to advocate for their positions with policymakers using the research they have developed. Lawsuits are threatened in response to the decision and rules for implementation will be developed over the next few months. Student advocacy can make a difference.
We can also use the net neutrality issue to highlight and advocate for wider internet accessibility for all students. Estimates are that as many as five million learners who live in high-poverty communities still don’t have access to the internet at all. For these learners, net neutrality isn’t even relevant, but it should be. They deserve the opportunity to have access to basic technology tools and the learning opportunities afforded by the internet.
Further, we can use the net neutrality issue to help students understand the promises and pitfalls of free and regulated market systems. Again, the debate should not be partisan. Rather, these are competing forces that have played a role in our economic system since its inception. By engaging an issue of immediate concern to students – their access to a resource they use every day – we can help them to build an understanding of broader concepts and principles important to their education and participation as a citizen.
Decisions made by legislators, commissioners, and other agents of the federal government may seem far away and beyond our ability to influence. Yet, we are their constituents and have a responsibility to add our voices to the discussion. The result can be more powerful than we imagine. Meanwhile, decisions such as net neutrality offer rich, important, authentic learning experiences for our students. We cannot afford to waste the opportunity.