Net neutrality – keeping the internet free and open

Last week the USA’s communications control body, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), took a significant step towards promoting net neutrality in that country. Julius Genachowski, FCC boss, said:

I believe we must choose to safeguard the openness that has made the Internet a stunning success. That is why today, I delivered a speech announcing that the FCC will be the smart cop on the beat when it comes to preserving a free and open Internet.

The crux of his speech was in the following points:

In particular, I proposed that the FCC adopt two new rules to help achieve this.

The first says broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. The second says broadband providers must be transparent about their network management practices. These principles would apply to the Internet however it is accessed, though how they apply may differ depending on the access platform or technology used…

I also proposed that the FCC formally enshrine the four pre-existing agency policies that say network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.

Wired explains that the first proposed regulation is necessary to “to prevent cable ISPs from slowing down online video services and 3G providers from messing with internet calling services like Skype.” (See the Skype blog for more on this.) The second proposed regulation will require transparency of network management policies by carriers.

Up until now the “four pre-existing agency policies” referred to by Genachowski have not been enforced, and have only been seen to be relevant to ISPs offering wired broadband services: now their application to wireless and mobile devices is also under consideration. These regulations, plus the two proposed new ones, are to be discussed by the FCC as part of an official rule-making process in November. The large American carriers (AOL, Comcast, AT&T) are protesting, as are the Republicans, arguing that such government “interference” will “stifle innovation”.

Meanwhile in Europe, a number of organisations are campaigning for recognition of the principles of net neutrality and a petition is up for signature, campaigning for net neutrality to be enshrined in European law.

For those of us involved in online education, especially in the provision of open educational resources, net neutrality is a cornerstone of the openness that allows for the free flow of knowledge, regardless of platform, application or device used to access the knowledge.

Gabi Witthaus

28 Sept 2009

Online Conferences: Why waste a good economic crisis?

From 7th through 14th January, 2010, Beyond Distance will hold its 5th Annual Learning Futures Festival. This year, for the first time, the festival will be completely and only online.

Is it good to have a conference in a completely online format? How can sitting in one’s office in front of a computer monitor, clicking, typing, discussing, watching and listening to something taking place many miles away be preferable to actually traveling to that distant city, booking in for the nights, sitting amongst rows and rows of participants all listening to a single speaker on the podium, standing in a queue for the finger food – to say nothing of the expense? The fact is that online conferences are beginning to look more attractive, especially in these days of economic challenge.

But saving money is not the only benefit. Participants report other benefits, such as: more in-depth, more detailed, and more inclusive discussions; participation from delegates further afield; time flexibility; and having a permanent record of proceedings. Online conferences tend to challenge the sage-on-the-stage model of presentation by offering every delegate more direct access to the speaker as well as to every other delegate – in real time and in his own time.

I had an interesting online conference experience this week. I assisted as my colleague Gabi Witthaus served as a keynote speaker for the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning in South Africa (NADEOSA) annual conference. (See Gabi’s OTTER project blog post about this.) This conference, while not an online conference, was online for me and Gabi – the conference took place in Pretoria, but Gabi and I were in the Media Zoo at University of Leicester.

Gabi had sent a good-quality video file of her presentation to South African colleagues, using filemail, so as not to disappoint if a live presentation connection to South Africa did not work. It was a good thing Gabi decided on a belt-and-braces approach. The first difficulty was that filemail, though always rock-solid, proved problematic for South African colleagues; in the end they settled for a low-resolution version of the file. The second issue arose with the live question-and-answer session; we tried various conferencing software, but all proved unstable. We had hoped to at least connect via a phone landline, but there was no landline in the auditorium where the keynote was to take place. Finally we settled on Skype – with video in the Media Zoo so that Gabi could be seen and heard in Pretoria, but with sound only in the auditorium so that Gabi could hear, but not see, the delegates.

In the end, the keynote presentation, though not without its difficulties (Skype dropped the call several times but we quickly reconnected), was a great success. We wondered if the audience, simply watching a movie of a presentation, would feel engaged enough. The many in-depth and insightful questions revealed that they had engaged. We were indeed at a very lively and thought-provoking conference with an auditorium full of academics, even though it was only two of us in the Media Zoo with a laptop, thousands of miles away. The fact that we fruitfully participated with colleagues with much less access to technology than we have underlined the need to continue exploring online conferencing in higher education. Please watch this space for upcoming information on our own Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online – and plan to join us!

Terese Bird

A tale of Ning and Skype – e-learning for Dementia Care

I was at the University of Bradford distance and e-learning conference on the 23rd of April.

I attended a very interesting workshop and a presentation done by the Dementia Group at Bradford where they talked about how they use Ning (a social networking site) and Skype to teach groups of adults practioner-learners studying M-level courses. The students are not your usual digital generation learners. They are older, with work, family and social responsibilities in addition to study commitments. Most of the students on the programme have never met each other or their tutors in real, physical life.

It was heart-warming to hear two of the students explaining to the audience how they learn and engage in the social networking platform and Skype, and how they enjoy learning. One student, told that he gave up his studies 45 years ago (at another university) after receiving feedback for his second assignment, and another course much later. So the course he is taking on Dementia Care is the third attempt to learn. He enjoys it because of the flexibility and the social nature of learning available in the current form of e-learning. He said that he couldn’t believe that learning could be a fun, social and creative activity that he is able to incorporate into his daily routine of work, family and social life.

Before I forget I must write down the following (un-refined) thoughts that occurred to me, and notes that I took while listening to the presenters (I also incorporate some of the quotes from students and staff).

The following are some of the key points that came from the students and staff when they talked about their experience of leaning online.

– Flexibility. The social networking site ‘brought the class to my home.’
– ‘Everything is on site. You can’t lose anything. It is all there!
– ‘Most of us are on it [Ning and Skype] everyday.
– ‘It does help you develop your own time’.
– Ability to support each other. ‘No matter what time of the day, there is always someone there – online [either on Skype or on Ning]. [The social network] helps me to do the degree while bringing up two kids and working 40+ hours a week’. Students also tend to create their own little study groups / peer support groups independent of the tutors.
– Provides a platform / tools for the distance learners to talk to each other from a wider geographical area, and across national and international boundaries, across cultural barriers; ability to create a shared experience. This seems to be an important element, because the students’ work was based on various practices, and on a daily basis they had a lot of work, and study-related experiences to share with each other. Without the e-learning platform, this valuable learning resource and knowledge can remain unused.
– Ability to create a new form of online identity (an identity that is much related to the ‘third culture’ developed online)

The module site showed students’ personal / individual and collaborative pieces of writing. One of the important things that I noticed was that students were gradually becoming skillfull authors, reflective practitioners and creators of practice-based knowledge. These are important learning outcomes relevant to their professional and academic development.

Many apologies to the Dementia Care group at Bradford if I have missed  important things that the group had said about their e-learning and e-teaching experience. And thanks Will (Will Stuart) for inviting to me to do a keynote at the conference.

Palitha Edirisingha (25 Apr 2009).

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