A Pedagogical and Economic Critique of Student Charges for Internet Access

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In this article I argue that charging students for Internet access is both destructive of fundamental objectives of the educational process and is unnecessary as a mechanism for solving the public goods problems that are typical of Internet provisioning.

Keywords: Internet, students, universities, teaching, learning, public goods.

INTRODUCTION

Consider:

1) "When I hear the word culture I want to reach for my revolver." This rather awful comment was made by Hermann Goering. Or was it? A quick Google search will show Goering as the originator. A more careful search will suggest Goebbels. But only a fairly exhaustive search will reveal that the source is in fact Hanns Johst, a leading playwright in the Nazi era.

2) In late 2000 a macabre web hoax suggested that kittens were being subjected to horrific mistreatment to shape their bodies, much as trees are shaped into bonsai. The "bonsai kitten" hoax was widely believed and provoked a storm of outrage, and the hoax is still occasionally seen circulating in email. The site (www.bonsaikitten.com) still exists, and a Google search for "bonsai kitten" still returns that site at the top of the list.

3) The word 'research' comes to us from the Old French cercher (to search), with the "re" denoting intensive force.

This article is about bandwidth, and in particular about why some ways of controlling its use militate catastrophically against objectives that universities regard as central to their mission. I do not dispute that control is necessary. The reader in an economically advanced context might find this last proposition surprising: why should there be control in the first place? The answer is that my primary interest is in addressing myself to low-bandwidth environments such as are typical throughout Africa and much of the developing world. It should be added that even in bandwidthrich environments there is often the need to manage access: a recent Chronicle of Higher Education link (http://chronicle.com/temp/rd.php?id=20050329d) highlights this vividly. But the problem in the developing world is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different. The sheer scale of the difference in the cost of bandwidth between these two contexts is breathtaking. Probably the simplest way to illustrate it is by reference to a traffic graph (Figure 1), taken from a South African university:

This graph shows the volume of both inbound traffic (green) and outbound (blue). The capacity of the circuit is a little under 8 megabits per second, which is large by African standards. It services more than 5 000 client computers. The distinctive table-top effect on the inbound traffic denotes circuit saturation: far more packets are trying to enter this circuit than can be serviced. Some are discarded, causing broken TCP sessions, which typically means broken web browsing. The enduser experience in this environment is dreadful: pages present extremely slowly or not at all. Circuits of comparable size are often used to carry Internet access to the home in Europe and North America. They can be had for 40 pounds a month in the UK. A circuit of this size in many parts of Africa costs $100 000 a month.

The appallingly high cost of bandwidth in many developing countries creates management imperatives that are quite foreign to bandwidth-rich environments. This article is about the range of possible responses to those imperatives and about the educational consequences of choices.

ARGUMENT

The microchip revolution has fundamentally and permanently altered the way in which information is produced and consumed. The consequences of this revolution are so pervasive that they amount to a societal revolution - a basic shift in the class composition of society and the manner in which surplus value is extracted and distributed. Universities have historically played a central role in sustaining class formations and in the maintenance and elaboration of the systems of knowledge that underpin economic activity. …