This Is How Net Neutrality Will Affect Students

by Elizabeth Broadbent
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My husband teaches English at a mid-sized high school in the South. On any given day, he may be pulling up stills of old Frankenstein movies to discuss past portrayals of the Creature, showing his students what Shakespeare’s First Folios looked like, looking at medieval manuscripts, finding current texts from Newsweek or The Washington Post, or showing students how different directors did the same scene in various renditions of The Great Gatsby. He depends on the internet to reel in his students, to bring them relevant, timely, up to date information in a relatable way.

All this may change, and soon.

Last Thursday, the Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal what we call “net neutrality.” Basically, net neutrality means that your service provider — Comcast, AT&T, whoever — can’t charge you more to access certain content, or slow certain content down if you don’t pay more. In 2015, the Obama administration had passed laws saying that providers had to allow content access at the same speed, for the same price: you couldn’t break anything up, say, by making people pay extra for Facebook, or drop ten bucks so their Netflix didn’t buffer for days, or lay down extra cash to access sites like Netflix and Amazon in the first place.

Now those laws have been repealed.

What we’ll begin to see — and soon — is anyone’s guess. But many fear a prioritization of pay sites (i.e., pay sites run faster, while anything free is slow as 1995), a rise of internet prices in general, and a loss of smaller sites as people only pay up for what they think they need (and can afford).

Most worryingly, we may see a new, tiered system of digital haves and have-nots, where those who can, pay, and those who can’t suffer with excruciatingly slow speeds and lack of basic content. And many students would fall into the latter category.

Everything now exists online. Imagine attempting, for example, to write a research paper when your service provider blocks half the content, and the content you can reach loads in minutes, not seconds. Then imagine the resulting product is being compared to papers written with full web access and download speeds. Your ability to pay would affect your ability to research and complete your assignments.

“The internet is essential to all our functions,” says Katherine Ahnberg, an academic librarian at the University of Pennsylvania told NPR. “We teach students how to critically analyze information they come across.” And doing so requires unfettered access to that information.

And that’s just an obvious example. Many students today take tests online — our state’s students do some of their standardized tests virtually, and across the country, middle school, high school, and college students take regular course tests online, submit papers virtually, and even do labs and math problem sets on the internet. This may change, and radically. College website StudyBreaks says that, “If campus internet access is compromised, students may have trouble taking online exams and quizzes, submitting assignments on time without lag or accessing the appropriate study materials or coursework. Students may also miss out on online activities such as discussion boards and group project collaboration that occurs with the help of the internet.”

Many, like Richard Culatta, CEO of Technology in Education, worry about how resources available to classroom teachers — like my husband — will change. He tells NPR that, “Because we aren’t charging students sitting in a class … they don’t really provide any financial incentive for the carriers to provide those at a higher speed. Now, with net neutrality, of course, that was not an issue. But when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.”

He talks about a school in Chattanooga where students have virtual, internet-facilitated access to the electron microscope at the University of Southern California — an astronomically expensive, rare instrument they use to run experiments. “All that worked because they have access to high-speed Internet connections. As soon as that gets throttled back, access to those students to conduct those experiments is gone,” Culatta says.

This is a damn shame.

He worries that for years the internet has become a great leveler of schools: schools that were wealthy and schools that were poor had access to many of the same resources and knowledge; no longer did they have to solely rely on outdated text books and underfunded school/local libraries. But with the repeal of net neutrality, all of this may change.

Many school districts across the country may not be able to shell out for the top-tier internet service. The Internet may no longer be Culatta’s great leveler, but instead another division between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. NPR quotes a Pew Research Study which already “found that 5 million, most low income, school-aged children do not have access to broadband internet connection.Some Democrats in the Senate are worried that deregulation of net neutrality will widen inequity.”

Parents, teachers, and school administrators are worried about the same thing.

Imagine not being able to email your teacher — or as a parent, respond to a teacher’s emails — because you can’t afford that tier of Internet access. That’s a possibility in this brave new world without consumer protections. Of course, cable companies say nothing will change. But as Culatta says, “The catch at the end of the day is, who are those companies answering to, right? They’re not answering to my kids’ teacher in their school. They’re answering to shareholders.” Bingo.

Complaints about how the repeal of net neutrality will negatively affect students have been submitted by, according to StudyBreaks, the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, EDUCAUSE, the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the American Library Association, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and former president Barack Obama.

Thanks, Obama.