Self-Directed Learning Flourishes Online—Unless We Lose Net Neutrality

This is a guest post by Jeff Landale, a Washington, DC-based organizer and researcher on technology and internet issues who grew up without schooling outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He can be reached at or found on Twitter: @jefflandale.

As an unschooler in the 2000s, I used the internet for everything. If I wanted to study a new topic, find people who shared my interests, or who could teach me, or experience expressing my thoughts without being condescended to as a child, I went online. That may no longer be possible with the repeal of net neutrality protections earlier this year as the internet that supports self-directed learning is at risk of transforming into another tool for corporate consumerism.

Ivan Illich, a critic of mass compulsory education, predicted the internet I grew up with before it’s birth in his description of good educational systems in Deschooling Society: “[I]t should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity.” By making it orders of magnitude easier to find communities of homeschoolers, knowledge and information, and people with shared passions spread across the globe, it is no surprise that the number of families homeschooling took off with the rise of the internet; it was just like Illich described an ideal educational system should be. But what made the internet such an excellent tool for self-directed learning is under threat by the merger of internet service providers (ISPs) with media companies. Without net neutrality protections, the internet will stop working like the open network of learning, sharing, and connecting that Illich described.

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally by internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T. It means that if you want to set up a website, an email list, or have your classroom be a videoconference on the web, it will be just as fast and cost the same as anyone else’s website, email list, or online classroom. In the same way that your water utility charges the same for a gallon whether you're using it to boil pasta or water a garden, net neutrality requires ISPs to treat each bit equally, no matter where it is coming from, where it is going, or what data it is carrying.

ISPs hate this, because it allows people to circumvent their monopoly on media and communication services, such as TV, cable, and telephones. ISPs respond by slowing or completely blocking the traffic of online competitors. Skype, which I used as a teenager to keep in touch with friends who lived in other countries without devastating my parents’ phone bill, was blocked on some platforms by AT&T for two years because it competed with their telephone business, and wireless carriers were caught this week slowing down video streaming apps like YouTube and Netflix that compete with their cable subscriptions. And if they get their way, they'll charge you to access different websites, on top of your regular broadband bill.

This is about more than just saving money: when the internet is a place where anyone, anywhere, can set up a website to talk about their passion and interact with likeminded people, and where anyone with an internet connection can find them, self-directed learning can take us anywhere. If the internet becomes a place where you can only go to whatever websites your ISP curates, our ability to learn, teach, and grow as individuals and communities is limited by the ISP paywalls.

The Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality protections, but Congress has a chance to undo this repeal by voting for the Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution. The CRA has already passed the Senate and is awaiting enough support in the House of Representatives to get a vote.

I was lucky enough to be homeschooled at a time when the internet was only limited by the noisy, slow speeds of our dial-up modem. I could find web forums devoted to fantasy novels, blogs about philosophy and current events, and develop passions for things that nobody else in my town had even heard of. I could find people to teach me what I wanted to know about, and to grow up understanding that the only limitation placed on understanding the world was what I wanted to study first. If we can't save net neutrality, young people who want to take charge of their own education will find that the internet has been turned into just another place where someone else decides what they can read, watch, and listen to.