Without Net Neutrality, E-Learning in the Fast Lane May Be No More

For many students who rely on the Web to achieve their academic goals, the e-learning experience could soon become a little less Comcastic.

Earlier this year, a U.S. appeals court canned federal rules requiring broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic equally. The hypothetical result: Bandwidth-hungry websites like Netflix and might have to pay the Web equivalent of highway tolls to ensure quality (read: Fast) service from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon.

Last month, the FCC said it won't appeal the D.C. Circuit's ruling – and instead plans to propose new rules after soliciting public comment. In a worst-case situation, the new rules may run counter to the spirit of net neutrality: That Web content is should be equal regardless of who’s providing it, where it's coming from, what it consists of, what devices it touches, or who it's going to.

What may this ruling mean for consumers, which include distance learning students? The potential tiered-payments model doesn’t just hit businesses in the pocketbooks. It also reverses whole point of education: Leveling the playing field.  

Here are some of the most plausible side effects that students could experience:             

User experience? What user experience?

Imagine having a virtual conference with a teacher, only to be bogged down by 1990s-era bandwidth. Imagine being on a VoIP call with a tutor, only to be disconnected or struggle with unintelligible speech. Imagine trying to log in to streaming services, only to arrive on error pages at peak usage times.

The frustrating old days of dial-up seem like ancient history, but we could well be bracing for its return. A significant amount of e-learning content may suffer from slow speeds if website stakeholders and administrators can’t afford to pay the extra for speed. Imagine going through hour-long video lectures, only to be intermittently interrupted by stop-and-start loading (or worse: 404 pages).

Bandwidth is critical for a busy adult student who juggles parenting, school, and work. A student who has 25 megabits per second is positioned to complete assignments faster than a student who has only 5 megabits per second.

Congestion on the tubes could kill the very thing that brought an adult back to school: Motivation. After all, one of the major perks of earning your degree online is to bypass the gridlock on the way to campus

The buck stops here – perhaps in the form of increased tuition

Of course, not all academic administrators will compromise content quality for budgetary reasons. Supposing providers of educational MOOCs (think: universities and private startups) decide to pay extra for faster speeds, there is a real concern that the end user – students – may have to bear the extra cost.

As Ravi Ravishanker, chief information officer and associate dean of Wellesley College wrote in his institutional blog:

"If Amazon doesn't pay extra to Verizon, will they slow down the connection? What does that mean to our plans to move some of our operations to the cloud? Obviously, Amazon will pass the cost on to the customers, thereby increasing the cost of cloud computing. Will Wellesley be asked to pay a fee to make our Web sites load faster or even accessible? Will this result in a bidding war between small liberal arts colleges?

De-democratization of education

Naturally, it’s the big-name players who are splashed across the headlines about net neutrality: Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter are just a few examples of companies that have taken a strongly worded stance to defend net neutrality. This is admirable, given that they are the examples of the deep-pocketed corporations that could potentially gain the upper hand by paying for faster bandwidth.

But what about a public school with humble endowments? What about K-12 programs for students who can’t (or chose not to) physically attend class?  One can easily imagine how the odds are tilted more in favor of large for-profit schools. An un-equal Web could very well change the face (and business model) of online learning across the board.

If the FCC ruling sticks, the Information Highway is on its way to becoming a little less democratic. The essence of net neutrality is that ISPs don't get to stick their noses in consumer choices make. And by being given free rein to set tiered pricing, the citizens who enroll in schools (primarily as students, and secondarily as paying customers) will suffer.

To fight this ruling, there are a number of things you can do: Sign petitions to restore Net Neutrality. Write letters to the FCC (specifically, Chairman Tom Wheeler). Or take it from a grassroots level, to air your concerns to decision-makers at schools.

But if none of this passes muster? Then you may as well dig up those 1990s-era AOL discs again, to prepare for a new era of Slow Surfing.