Net Neutrality and Online Learning

Net Neutrality and its Implications to Online Learning
Lisa C. Yamagata-Lynch, Deepa R. Despande, Jaewoo Do, Erin Garty, Jason M. Mastrogiovanni, and Stephanie J. Teague, IRRODL, September 2017

While I breath a sigh of relief living in Canada and having a government that, in public anyway seems to support net neutrality, I know the web is a global resource controlled primarily by US based corporations. So any change in the rules around net neutrality will likely have global repercussions, including here in Canada. And considering that trade agreements between Canada and the US are being renegotiated, there is a very good chance that, like copyright terms,  net neutrality could end up being something on the bargaining table.

But that is a commercial perspective. Realistically, what kind of effect could the removal of net neutrality protections have for higher education and, more specifically, online learning? This is the focus of this IRRODL paper.

The paper is authored by a group of researchers based at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, so does approach the topic from a US perspective. But,as noted above, if net neutrality does find its way into international trade negotiations, we could see similar results here in Canada.

The authors point out that, without net neutrality in place, there are implications for both distance educators and students. 

We believe that if net neutrality is not in place, both distance learning educators and learners may find difficulty in engaging with online materials depending on where they live, personal finances, and what features they are willing to bundle into their cable services.

For higher education, the issue of net neutrality is primarily an issue of access. Without net neutrality, there could be additional barriers put in place for students who wish to access information and services on the internet, especially at-risk or economically disadvantaged students. As the authors note;

When net neutrality is not maintained, disadvantaged learners can encounter structural inequalities that affect their access to information and experience digital disempowerment (Hacker, Mason, & Morgan, 2007). Despite efforts by the US government to enhance educational opportunities for P-20 learners through online learning, network discrimination is re-widening the gap for access to these educational opportunities (Gorski, 2009; Whitacre & Mills, 2007). This can exacerbate existing social inequalities (Robinson et al., 2015).

The paper goes deep into the history of net neutrality and the US regulatory environment, and explains how we have arrived at a point that could have direct implications on students beyond, I would argue, simply distance education students. With the rise of blended learning and the use of the internet as a primary research tool by students, net neutrality and the cable packaging of the internet that could result will have implications for all of our learners.