Net neutrality repeal widens opportunity gap for students

This month, the FCC repealed “net neutrality" — a policy that allows equitable access to content on the Internet — in a 3-2 vote along party lines. While there are stakeholders who believe that the end of net neutrality will result in an online environment better suited for innovation, competition and economic growth, there are troublesome implications for students and teachers in our country — from preschool all the way through institutes of higher education.

As former Secretary of Education John King has said, “one of the most important aspects of technology in education is its ability to level the field of opportunity for students.” By ending net neutrality, we are taking a step backward in the long-fought battle to provide equitable educational opportunities for all students in our country.

In the world of education, net neutrality is one element of digital equity — the concept that all students should have access to technology, such as devices, software and the Internet, and trained educators to help them navigate these tools. Our country has an unfortunate history of inequitable education. Students’ educational opportunities were once limited by the resources that were found within the four walls of their schools. Technology changed all of this. The Internet has benefited teachers and students by providing access to high-quality information, resources and expertise — no matter what tangible resources their schools and communities are able to provide.

At the Loyola School of Education, we seek to bring awareness to unjust social, cultural, economic and political choices. Net neutrality is a structure that provides just educational opportunities for the most vulnerable members of our community: our nation’s children, who do not have the means to create these equitable conditions for themselves.

At first glance, the repeal of net neutrality might not seem like a big deal. Sure, some people might be willing to pay more for certain content or faster Internet speeds. This is not an unfamiliar concept: You can pay a little extra for a movie ticket and get a comfortable, reclining seat with a footrest, and you can buy a “Fast Pass” at Disney World to skip the long lines. Why shouldn’t this same concept apply to the Internet? Because access to high-quality Internet-based resources should be available to all schools and all students — not just the schools or districts that can afford it.

In the absence of net neutrality, digital equity for students becomes a greater challenge. As Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, stated in an NPR interview recently, “we're back to where we were before, where students are getting shortchanged based on the ZIP code they live in.”

We should also consider the implications this has for students and educators outside of their school buildings. Even in an ideal scenario when digital equity exists within the classroom, access to technology and reliable high-speed Internet outside of school is far from guaranteed. A recent Pew Research study found that 5 million children — most of whom are low-income — do not have access to broadband Internet connection. The end of net neutrality will widen that digital divide, the gap that educators have worked so hard to narrow.

As our country wades through the political and potentially judicial, processes of approving and enacting these changes, we should continue to educate ourselves about net neutrality and what these changes will mean for our schools. Leaders in our schools and in our communities should prepare to make informed decisions in the best interests of students. Teachers should continue the hard and important work of educating our nation’s children using all available resources. And, as we’re reinforcing with our educators at the Loyola School of Education, we should continue advocating for social justice and digital equity for all students, especially students who attend schools with inadequate resources.

Amy L. McGinn (almcginn@loyola.edu ) is a lecturer for the Loyola School of Education’s Educational Technology program.

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