Students Searching for Universal Data

I love looking at the cellular data network coverage maps showing where your phone will be able to connect to the Internet. Every carrier has their own version, spangled in the company colors so you know who to thank. But in a way, these maps aren’t just advertorial: they show the edge of modern civilization.

After all, mobile data is quickly becoming the new standard for Internet access; smart devices are the preferred platform for everyone from doctors and nurses to college students and presidents. It is like a systemic paraphrasing of The Lion King: “Everything the data map covers is our kingdom.”

The kingdom, in the 21st century, means relevance, engagement, access to knowledge and news, having a voice. For students and schools outside the kingdom, opportunity can seem out of reach.

Needs, Dreams, and Rights

While access to the Internet is by no means a guarantee of outcomes, achievements, or even learning, the absence of this access is effectively punitive for students, teachers, and school.

By Obama’s reckoning, “The Internet is not a luxury, but a necessity,” and key to realizing the modern American Dream. In Canada, a similar spirit informed plans to get every citizen connected to high speed internet, officially designating the service as an essential telecommunications service, thereby affording it greater protections and subjecting it to different regulations. The United Nations went even further with its finding that Internet access constitutes a new human right.

But they weren’t all talking about the same Internet.

Mobile data–the stuff of cellular plans as well as ambitious projects out of Silicon Valley to make coverage maps irrelevant–doesn’t provide the exact same connectivity as dedicated high-speed cable or fiber optic lines. Indeed, the very brands working to make global connectivity a reality would also be gatekeepers choosing which sites, services, and data their users accessed. One may safely assume that free global internet provided by Facebook would send users by default to Facebook as a homepage.

But mobile data is easier and cheaper to push out across greater areas, and to upgrade as the technology improves. This is especially true for poor, rural, or extremely remote regions–those few spots on the map devoid of color and coverage. With branded Internet filling the gaps, the range and type of content users see could well become something akin to a class-based feature.

So even as access itself is championed as the sine qua non of modern living (and schooling), different types of access–to different versions and degrees of the Internet–is further complicating the question of how much data is enough.

What Do We Mean by “Internet” ?

Schools don’t necessarily need access to the full unfiltered Internet anyway.

Nearly one quarter of all mobile searches is for porn, and some 90 percent of teenagers today will encounter some form of porn online before they reach adulthood. That is hardly part of the academic mission schools pursue by securing Internet access. But “porn” itself, not unlike “literally,” has undergone a change of definition in the Internet era away from its original, specific meaning to a term of emphasis or hyperbole.

Social media has popularized various hobbies and interest groups as pornography–just search Instagram for “food porn” and take an the epicurean journey around the world; or, to satisfy your wanderlust, find any of the hundreds of “travel porn” blogs to witness entirely lust-free accounts of vacations, road trips, and cruises. And just as each subgroup has its own, personalized version of “porn,” the world has been steadily realigning itself online into isolated pockets of alternative facts.

Long before Kellyanne Conway used the term, politicos and casual browsers alike self-sorted into ideological bubble communities, where challenging ideas and interpretations of science itself were cut off from one another. To go online today is to choose a camp and stay there, insulated from contradiction or contest.

Porn isn’t porn, facts aren’t facts, the Internet isn’t the Internet, and literally is now figurative–so is data really access?

The next shift in what the Internet itself really is may hold answers.

Data, Things, and People

Were Yakov Smirnoff to apply his classic Russian Reversal joke to today’s online culture, he might say, “In Soviet Russia, the Internet uses you!” Except he wouldn’t be wrong–and this role reversal isn’t limited to one place.

The Internet of Things is already making itself known around the world. Rather than users navigating the Internet through user-friendly browsers and screen-based interfaces, smart devices are taking responsibility for creating, exchanging, and accessing information. Wearables ranging from step-tracking fitness bracelets to implantable heart monitors are gaining in both popularity and functionality. In the classroom, silent monitoring systems gauge engagement, performance, and comprehension to automatically alert teachers to individual student needs and opportunities–or simply adjust tests and assignments responsively on their behalf.

In short, people don’t just use passive technology–the technology is active, autonomous, and capable of “making” its own Internet, sharing data among a network of devices, rather than between human users. In the Internet of Things, the devices do in fact use us.

Before universal Internet access even became a reality, the nature of the Internet, and data, and access have all been thrown into confusion. More critical thinking than ever is needed to navigate the world’s online troves of knowledge, in order to distinguish fact from opinion, reliable from unreliable sources, even real people from chat bots.

For all the importance we’ve come to place on getting schools and students connected, the most important skills of all remain social, interpersonal, and based in the real, rather than digital, world. Internet access remains a worthy goal, but equally important is ensuring that future generations of students and their instructors are equipped to navigate the web, given the opportunity.


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