However, apart from providing universal access to the Web, the biggest instructional technology problem I see right now is the continued degradation of Net Neutrality. ‘Net Neutrality’ describes an Internet that passes along all bits of information at an equal rate. Without Net Neutrality, regardless of how much bandwidth any particular user has, Internet service providers can ‘throttle’ the speed of delivery to privilege some bits of information over others, effectively slowing down some websites and services while speeding up others.
I don’t mean to suggest that access to the Web is the greatest problem a community can have, or that Net Neutrality is the most pressing problem to solve in the whole world. What I mean is that online delivery of both standardized and more idiosyncratic curriculum, content, and assessment is a thing. Whereas schools, by and large, have no systemic investment in cultural production or in teaching a skillset like design, they do have multi-, multi-million dollar investments in hardware and licenses for content and assessments. So Net Neutrality ought to be a big deal to schools as further loss of Net Neutrality can lead to increased costs, even more limited teaching and learning outcomes, and a move towards a generational and societal misconception of what the Internet and Web can do for people.
I would love to see parent groups, school boards, school administrator organizations, and teacher unions issue frequent statements and maintain active campaigns to protect Net Neutrality. Here are some anxieties underpinning that desire:
First, I worry about Big Education Publishing partnering with Big Service Providers to throttle up access to purchased curriculum and content while throttling down the rest of the Internet. It’s easy to advertise ‘flipped’ instruction and ‘technology enhanced interventions’ that are ’5x as fast’ as competitors’ products when you pay service providers to make that fiber-optically true, regardless of the quality of your code or product.
Second, I worry about de facto censorship. A division could actually claim to have an open network to assuage internal or external stakeholders and simply buy a plan from a service provider that throttles sites and services instead of fire-walling them. The theoretical possibility of teaching with games or helping kids do inquiry-based research on a controversial issue is not the same as being free to do those things.
Third, I worry about the continued standardization of public schooling and the increasing amount of control corporations have over it. Public schooling should be a public good and teach us to engage with one another as thinkers, citizens, and neighbors. We can’t do that when we’re coerced to spend our time engaging with product. The loss of Net Neutrality will further diminish the amount of time, space, and thought for human interactions spared in schools. If we have to spend X amount of time waiting for a Web app to load, or Y, where Y costs a bit more but loads faster and delivers more content, (if we let them) schools will go with Y, even if X is free and open. If we are paying extra for faster delivery of online content, (if we let them) schools will make sure we spend more time with that content than with one another or offline work, whether we’re making stuff or not. Moreover, I can see a scenario in which we finality change the school calendar, not because we’re no longer an agrarian society, but because so many schools pay for preferential Internet service during their testing windows that those windows start to roll as preferential bandwidth fills up and chokes off non-test bandwidth for schools in participating (or not participating) localities. ‘We start in October so we can test in July during our TurboTest window.’ The coup de grace of standardizing education is a perverse modularity that makes it, you know, ‘imperative,’ we all implement the same ‘schooling’ with 100% fidelity because we can’t fall behind the divisions starting and testing two months earlier than we do. Also, we have to pay more for the tests because they have to be changed up frequently between windows. There is no scenario in which the loss of Net Neutrality is good – in the moral sense of the word – for schools.
Finally, I worry what I already worry: very few schools give kids an accurate, democratic idea of what they can do with the Web. Imagine schools in which bandwidth is even more scarce than it is now and in which such bandwidth remains costs more to keep un-throttled. Of course schools are going to buy the services and products that promise dependable, speedy delivery, and publishers will want to be a part of that. Networks are shaky things already. I know that I bounce around between 2 or 3 a day at work in the best configuration we could have right now. Are we really prepared to teach kids that the ‘Net is for doing what you’re told? For paying for access? For testing? Is our mission to schoolify the Internet? There exist entire taxonomies and ecosystems of art and science we don’t offer in public schools even with a ‘neutral’ Internet. Do we think we’ll be able to preserve whatever it is we have now (surviving elective programs and maverick teachers come to mind) if we start paying more for a smaller set of standardized learning objects delivered through a financial partnership between ed publishers and Internet service providers?
The open ‘Net is something we need for individual expression and intellectual freedom, and we should safeguard all three of those things for our children. That means fighting for Net Neutrality in schools so long as we school kids the way we do, so that sometime, someday, in some classroom they see a little bit more than the corner of the Web into which we’re in imminent danger of painting ourselves.