Online Education After The End of Net Neutrality

I have been grading all morning. My course this semester was an online graduate seminar called “Digital Sociology”. It is a capstone course in our newly-100-percent-bureucratically-approved Master’s of Science in Digital Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Grading for the course today looked like this:

  1. I used hypothes.is to provide feedback on students’ final blog post for the semester. The post is an exercise in meta-cognition and translating their new skills to potential employers.
  2. I used google docs to give feedback on a final paper in real-time with a student. Together we remotely logged into the University’s online database to search for a research article on legislation of hate speech.
  3. I shared my thoughts on final projects with all the course’s registered students in our course’s Google Classroom space.

These are routine activities in online learning. And, online learning is now a multi-million dollar institutional effort to expand access to and investment in U.S. higher education.

Online education was built, and sold to stakeholders, on the premise of affordable, accessible internet access.

Today’s FCC ruling calls into question if the assumption on which online education was built will remain true.

What does the end of net neutrality mean? It mostly means that the companies which now provide us the means to connect to the internet — the wires and tubes we rarely think about or see — can charge for access based on what services we use once we are online.

Practically, the American Civil Liberties Union says we should not see wholesale changes in how we use the internet right away:

Most internet subscribers will not see dramatic changes right away; the companies know that this is a hot-button issue and that people are mad. Consumer-facing companies are restrained not just by enforceable rules but also by social norms and users’ expectations.

The concern is that companies tend to want to maximize profit. It isn’t hard to imagine telecom companies allowing companies who can pay for premium internet space to skew what is and is not available on the internet. The most doomsday predictions look like this, a meme circulating everywhere across my social networks:

As luck would have it, this semester’s course focused on how digital stuff interacts with the processes that reproduce racial inequality. For many, the end of net neutrality also means the regulation-by-capital of online spaces where minority groups shut out of traditional media, politics, and economies have thrived (albeit always at the precipice of precarity):

What will online education look like if students’ access to the internet is more compounded by their structural inequalities than it is already? How can we, in good conscience, use online technologies to increase access to higher education if the cost of using the internet rises while corporate control of the internet increases?

Wherefore art democratic education?

These are good questions for digital sociology.

Want to discuss what todays’ FCC decision might mean for higher education? Respond to this post or submit your thoughts to the magazine. I’ll share them as they come in.

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