Learning Lessons: Net Neutrality and the Future of Online Education

The future of digital marketing depends on a talent pool with technical knowledge and conceptual understanding of the technologies that drive engaging digital experiences. However, only 11 percent of business leaders feel college graduates have the requisite skills they need to be successful. Skills preparedness is a growing problem for employers that could worsen with the FCC’s restrictions on the open Internet.

Brands like YouTube and Netflix have been the focus of the net neutrality debate between Internet service providers (ISPs) and content providers. Net neutrality reserves our right to communicate freely on the Internet. Without it, ISPs will be able to monitor what we see and prioritize Web traffic speed, i.e., the highest bidder gets the fastest speed. Although online education services haven’t been at the fore of this debate, they have just as much at stake in the fate of the open Internet.

Streaming video is critical to many online courses, from traditional universities like Harvard to alternative learning providers like Coursera. The need to deliver high-bandwidth video under the FCC’s proposed standard will potentially increase carrier fees, which education providers will in turn pass onto students. With millions of users across traditional and native online learning websites, education providers should be concerned about the end of net neutrality and its potential implications.

Over the last four years, the cost of college tuition has increased at a faster rate than health care, prompting many students to take online classes to avoid exorbitant college tuition. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 5.5 million students who were enrolled in traditional classes took at least one online course in 2012. This data doesn’t include information about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that provide educational content to an average of 43,000 students per course.

The end of net neutrality would inevitably lead to online education providers paying more to deliver video course content – which would mean an increase in operating costs that would be bundled into millions of students’ fees. The increased cost would stifle enrollments at a critical moment in the growth of the online education sector.

A requirement to pay ISPs for increased bandwidth to stream video to millions of students is an added expense that many online schools may not be willing to pay. Brands like Udemy, Khan Academy, Udacity, Codecademy, and General Assembly have already made significant investments in process and infrastructure to deliver streaming video course content. Although ISPs have less incentive to slow down education websites than those of competing entertainment brands like YouTube or Netflix, educational content providers could be subjected to the same “double-dipping” as the streaming entertainment services.

Double-dipping is at the heart of the entertainment brands’ battle with gatekeepers like Verizon and Comcast. The issue is that ISPs are charging content providers for access to customers that have already paid a monthly subscription fee for broadband service. Increased access and bandwidth fees are barriers to the growth of competitive offerings in online education. This concern was echoed in a statement to the FCC by Zach Sims, one of the co-founders of Codecademy, which describes itself as “the first truly net native education” site:

“We are deeply concerned about the FCC’s open Internet proposal because it would permit discrimination of applications and content subject to a vague ‘commercial reasonableness’ standard. A two-tiered Internet that allows a priority fast lane would stifle competition, innovation, and the quality of online education. This result would harm our company, our millions of users, and the overall economy and its ability to compete globally.”

In his statement, Sims highlights how the “commercial reasonableness” standard could prevent most online education providers from launching: “The commercial reasonableness standard requires us to hire a team of lawyers and expert witnesses we cannot afford merely to get ‘reasonable’ treatment and fees, when what the open Internet has traditionally guaranteed is neutral, equal treatment.”

Sims’ contention that only those with deep pockets will be able to afford to deliver content to millions of potential online students must not be ignored, especially as traditional college tuition continues to increase.

The demand for a workforce with the 21st-century skills that marketing agencies, design firms, and development shops require should influence the debate around net neutrality. On the 25th launch anniversary of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely acknowledged as the inventor of the World Wide Web, issued a challenge: “Will we allow others to package and restrict our online experience, or will we protect the magic of the open Web and the power it gives us to say, discover, and create anything?” When it comes to net neutrality and the future of online education, only time will tell.

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