Today I want to call out a couple of Mac apps that I personally have found to be a great help to me as a systems admin and builder. These are all simple things that help me get work done.
Part of the reason I switched from Windows to Mac when I took my job was to have easier access to a bash terminal. But after a few weeks, I found that using the built in Mac Terminal app wasn’t very efficient for me. I had something like a dozen production and development servers to access on a regular basis, plus a growing amount of resources in AWS, and manually typing in hostnames, users, passwords, and tracking keys seemed unnecessarily burdensome. Before long I found Termius, which is a great SSH manager. Now I add my host information into Termius and can login into whatever server I need in seconds.
It can be used on a laptop for free but my boss was kind enough to purchase a license for me so I have extra features and can sync my credentials to multiple devices. That’s cool because Termius works just about anywhere, including my iPad and iPhone. The Mac app looks great, performs well, and also includes an SFTP client and the ability to save “snippets” so you can save and re-use tricky or frequent commands.
Cost: Freemium (60 USD per year)
Pro tip: Organize hosts into Groups and set a default color scheme. I use the classic black and green for my dev servers and a light color scheme on production so I can tell at a glance what environment I’m in.
Let’s face it, passwords suck. But until biometrics or physical tokens or something else totally take over we’re stuck with them. I had been using this app for awhile personally and my team invested in LastPass about 6 months ago. It has made sharing credentials to access some of our tools much easier (and safer.)
Most people probably use LastPass exclusively as a browser plugin that can auto-fill passwords. But it also comes with a pretty nice Mac app if you want to get a bit more in-depth. Beyond username/passwords, there are templates to store lots of useful things server info, private keys, account numbers, credit cards. and billing information.
Cost: Freemium (2 USD per user per month)
Pro tip: When the Mac app is running, you can invoke a quick search of your vault with CMD-Shift-L . From the search results there are buttons to quickly copy usernames or passwords to your clipboard.
The life of systems administration sometimes involves a lot of waiting around waiting for a process to finish. Sometimes, you need your laptop to stay awake even if you’d rather step away. Amphetamine is an app that does just that. Just turn it on and your Mac will stay awake without needing to futz with power saving settings.
Pro tip: You can choose criteria to keep your Mac awake: while a certain app is running, for a certain amount of time, or indefinitely. Keep this app on, then lock your screen (CTRL-SHIFT-Power button) to let a process run while you go take a coffee break//walk/nap.
One area I’ve learned a lot in is using Git submodules to administer plugin-heavy applications like Moodle or WordPress. I made a short video walking through the process of adding a Moodle plugin to a repository as a submodule. Enjoy!
I haven’t written in a while and wanted to get something up so I’m allowing myself an extremely indulgent “what’s in my bag” post.
I switched a while ago from a shoulder bag to a small backpack, the North St. Meeting Bag. Going team tiny-backpack has done wonders for my back. It’s super light and balanced and fits my laptop, tablet, and other tech essentials (with my headphones attached via carabiner on the back).
I had been using a loaded 13” Surface Book 2 in my previous role, but when I took the sys-admin job I switched back to my older Mac laptop. The Surface Book was really nice but I went Mac for the integrated terminal, better portability and a general slight preference for the OS (at least in my work environment where Windows is heavily managed/limited by IT). So my current work rig is a 13” MacBook Pro (2015 model, core i5/8GB RAM/256GB SSD). It’s not the fanciest or fastest these days but it more than gets the job done. I take it into work and plug into a dock with wireless mouse and keyboard and two 27” 1440p Dell monitors. Also making the switch with me is a 10.5” iPad Pro I have from my work with the untethered teaching initiative at my institution. I do the vast majority of my work on the laptop but the iPad gets used for light work on the go (email from the coffee shop, digital white-boarding, notes at meetings, watching training videos, etc). Since I use Termius I can even SSH in to servers on the iPad if I need to.
Aside from my devices, I carry a Moleskine notebook, an Anker external battery pack, various power cables and A/V dongles, a few pens and Apple pencils, a back-up pair of earbuds (with the stupid iPhone lightning dongle) a spare power brick for the Mac, and a slide advancer for presentations.
When I started working in sysadmin/ops land, I knew that version control would be important, and knew a little bit about it. I had used Git in a very basic way while playing around with some amateur coding projects. I knew how to initialize a repo, see which files were tracked, and stage and commit changes. But I didn’t quite appreciate how crucial a thorough understanding of Git would be to really be effective in maintaining and deploying code in a systems context – with thousands of users depending on availability of a server that needs to be patched, updated, etc safely, securely, and on-schedule. It didn’t take long before I was dedicating as much time as possible to mastering Git. I even created a “Git” section on my OneNote notebook, which is a big deal if you know me.
I knew I needed to learn a lot in a hurry. Thankfully, not only is Git Open Source software with thorough documentation – there is a real open community around git. A great example of this is the Pro Git textbook. This is a fantastic OER (open education resource). The book can be viewed online or downloaded in an ebook format for free. In my case, I downloaded the .mobi Kindle format and used the “Send to Kindle” option to add the ebook to my Kindle library. This allowed me to read the book with variable fonts and text sizes, and to highlight and make notes. There are also tons of good forum spaces for discussing git and asking questions (or more likely finding an answer that has already been given), from Stack Overflow forums specifically for GitHub.
Another virtue of git is that by its nature, it allows you to experiment and play. I cloned a repo of my institution’s production Moodle code into my own safe practice space, knowing that I could try things out and was perfectly safe as long as I didn’t push any commits back. And even if I did somehow end up with bad code, you can always reset back to a working commit. This allowed me to work on git skills and have a Moodle directory to explore and mess-up in a consequence free environment.
The git skills I’ve built have already paid off – aside from being crucial to any sane workflow for updating Moodle or WordPress sites, git has already saved me from crashing a site at least once. I got a bit sloppy on a dev WordPress site and did something to the wp-config PHP file that crashed the site. Yikes! It could have been anything from a missing semi-colon to a misspelled word. Hard to say, but the site was totally dead. Instead of spending a lot of valuable time poring over the file to find the typo, I executed a simple command:
sudo git checkout wp-config.php
The one area of consternation I’ve had with Git has been with submodules. The previous Moodle admin at my school set-up a submodule system to manage all of the various plugins we run (50 or so at last count). In theory this should make managing a suite of plugins easier, but in practice I’ve struggled with submodules, at least in terms of using them at all efficiently, as they make the git process a bit more complicated conceptually. However I am starting to get the hang of submodules now and and getting clarity on how they function in relation to the “superproject” in which they reside. This article from Catalyst, The Git submodule: misunderstood beast or remorseless slavering monster? was especially helpful for me.
This is going to sound stupid, but…One thing I didn’t really think about enough prior to starting my current job is just how much working with data is involved. Yes, I know. Information systems. It’s kind of all about data. But when I imagined what this job would entail, I thought a lot about building things, about creating systems that support and spark teaching and learning. The reams and reams of data that go along for the – names, email addresses, course CRNs, logs, files, etc – just didn’t seem that sexy to me.
But after a few months of being a sysadmin, I’m thinking about data more and more. There are the obvious things: am I doing enough to keep data safe in the age of constant breaches? Are we thinking about giving users control of their data in any meaningful way in light of evolving views about digital privacy? These are big questions. But in the day to day, I’m just working with like, rows and rows and rows.
It turns out, people have questions they want answered about the digital systems that play such an important role in our schools. These are all questions I’ve answered in the last month:
Which instructors used the accessible Moodle theme we provided in their courses?
I accidentally deleted a quiz, is there any way to get the grades each student in my class got on it?
Can you tell me who at the University has not yet completed this mandatory training?
How many people logged into Moodle on the first day of classes?
Here is the CRN numbers of 50 courses – can you get me the course full name, id number, and the instructor of record?
So what have I learned?
Sometimes this data is readily available within an application itself. For example in the recent versions of Moodle each course has a very powerful completion tracking and activity tracking report built-in. It is also be possible to extend this functionality with plugins.
Reports or logs can also generally be exported into a .csv or spreadsheet format. I was already pretty proficient with Excel but I’ve upped my game in the last few months just due to the amount of time I’ve spent in spreadsheets. (I don’t think I’ve opened PowerPoint in that time, I’ve kind of flip-flopped in that regard. Less presenting polished data and more churning through raw data).
In addition to a sheets tool, a good plain-text editor is your friend when data needs to be manipulated to be useful. I’ve been using VS Code and find it really useful for manipulating text, especially the ability to find and replace with a regex expression. This is incredibly handy when you have a comma separated list but it just has to have each item on a new-line to import wherever it is you need it to go.
If built-in reports or exported info isn’t cutting it, I’ve been going straight to the source itself: typically the Moodle database accessed by PHPMyAdmin. This lets me run SQL queries in a pretty friendly GUI environment and export the results. I’ve found that simple SQL itself is relatively easy to write – it’s understanding the complex structure of a huge relational database, how the tables need to be joined, and thinking through the links between tables that takes a bit of time. But, I am getting faster at this process – I find sketching the query out and making kind of a map of the relevant tables and fields helpful – and this is what has allowed me to do things like recover the grades of a deleted quiz or return a list of instructors who have used a certain theme.
I’ve been kicking a few ideas around, thinking about what topics or experiences I wanted to write about to chronicle my journey into systems administration/architecture. This week I had the fortunate misfortune to to come across the perfect situation for the first entry in this blog series when I received an email from one of the math professors at UP about our WeBWork server.
A bit of background on WebWork: it’s an open source program for delivering math homework via the web. We’ve run it at UP for a number of years, and recently migrated to AWS , using a single instance running Ubuntu.
Back to our emailing professor. She had been using the system over the holiday break and noticed intermittent lock-ups. She could use the site normally for about half an hour before things went sideways and it became unresponsive; if she waited a few hours and came back it would be working again, but only for about 30 minutes at a time.
After getting the email I checked the server and yeah, it was totally unresponsive via the web and SSH. Time for a hard reboot via the AWS console. After rebooting everything seemed fine but before long the prof let me know she was still experiencing the same issues. This time I was able to SSH in before things went totally haywire – but trying to execute any commands returned an error:
-bash: fork: Cannot allocate memory
Aha! A clue. I rebooted again and downloaded htop:
sudo apt-get install htop
htop is a CLI program for monitoring system usage – including memory. I hadn’t used it before, so I took advantage of the Lynda.com account I have through work and watched a good htop tutorial video to get a feel for it. When WebWork was in use, I could see via htop that there were some processes owned by the Apache server (www-data) that were eating up all of the available memory, of which we only had a paltry 4GB (I suspect that the original sysadmin who built the server intended to use an auto-scaling group that would spin-up additional resources on-demand, but was never able to get this working correctly).
A bit of research turned up lots of forum posts that discussed WebWork’s nasty habit of eating up system memory and failing to give it back, which over time can use up all the available RAM and result in crashes – some useful threads:
Through these posts, I learned about the Apache Max RequestWorkers and MaxConnectionsPerChild parameters. These control how many processes the server can spawn before shutting the oldest/most bloated ones down and can be tweaked to keep WebWork from running too many memory-obliterating tasks at once. It’s a balancing act, though: allow too few simultaneous requests, and unnecessary lag is introduced as Apache is forced to create new processes constantly while memory sits unutilized. A quick visit to the appropriate Apache config file at /etc/apache2/mods-available/mpm_prefork.conf confirmed that the server was still at the default setting of 150 Request Workers and unlimited child connections per requests (0 = unlimited in this case).
This gave me the formula to determine optimal Apache settings but I wanted to increase the system RAM as 4GB still seemed likely to be insufficient for any heavy use. This was easy to do in AWS as the WebWork instance was a simple single Elastic Block Store (EBS) backed EC2 Amazon Machine Image (AMI).
This was followed with a quick restart of Apache to apply the changes:
sudo apachectl restart
I headed to the site and logged onto a test course, trying out some searches in the Library Browser and found that things were improved: I could still see in htop that processes were eating up memory, but they would quickly be killed off and the memory returned to the system. I may have to tweak things when students start logging in and hitting the server with a lot of simultaneous, small requests, but for now so far so good.
2018 was a wild year for me. I had a kid, moved into a new, more technical role at work, and while I haven’t quite yet finished grad school, I’m now close enough that I feel the senioritis kicking in! All that is to say I’m looking forward to what I can achieve in 2019 as I finish school and continue my journey into dad-hood, but it’s the still-new job – Technology Solutions Architect at the University of Portland – that’s the subject of this post.
Moving from the world of edtech, which involved supporting, training, and consulting with faculty on technology tools, to now building, deploying, and administering those tools has been a major transition. As I think about what I know, and what I don’t know, I’ve been reflecting on what helped me to be successful in previous roles and what I can bring to my new one. Something that has stuck out is that I’ve made a habit of teaching, tutoring, writing and making video content that engages with my field. This serves multiple purposes:
I firmly believe that teaching something, whether that’s by presenting on a topic or creating a how-to guide is one of the best ways to build and retain a deep understanding.
It helps me to show what I know and documents my growth in my new field.
Hopefully my content can help others who are in or aspire to learn more about the type of work I’m doing. I’m still in Higher Ed, after all!
So, enter this blog. I’m calling the WordPress category for these posts “Patch Notes” – it’s my way to reflect on and document my professional growth. Possible topics include:
Moodle, WordPress, Linux, databases, cloud computing, open source, education technology, higher ed, Office 365, and more.
Discussion forums are a mainstay of online and blended classes. Any learning technology that becomes ubiquitous is a fair target for critical interrogation (Death by PowerPoint comes to mind); discussion boards, too, have their fair share of detractors. A common criticism is that forums lead to rote, dull, perfunctory work from students and instructors. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy write:
Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.
Even for those optimistic about the use of forums for real learning, the tools can be confusing to configure properly and are often an unwieldy chore for faculty to manage and assess. Indeed, the term “Death by Discussion Forum” would be an appropriate way to describe some online courses. Done well, however, online discussion forums can be an instrumental tool to build community, foster student engagement in the knowledge-building process and enrich learning via the reflective and socially rich exchange of written dialogue.
Therefore, while it is important that forward-thinking and innovative instructors experiment with new ways to supplement and build on established digital teaching and learning practices, it is also vital for instructors who are using discussion forums to work at their practice in the here and now. Instructional and pedagogical goals must be carefully aligned with the real-life use of forum activities in Moodle. Effectively facilitating a space for “brilliant and lively conversation” requires a deep understanding of the ways that adjusting various Moodle Forum activity settings impact the learner’s experience as they embark on writing and engaging with their peers.
Aligning Your Pedagogy with Forum Activities
Many critics of “bad PowerPoint” note that tools can be used well or poorly. An excellent slide deck isn’t the presentation; it supports the presentation. The most effective use of technology happens when our tools fade into the background. The irony, of course, is that creating the conditions in which technology disappears requires careful forethought and a relatively sophisticated understanding of said technology’s capabilities to support one’s work. So, before assigning a discussion forum for its own sake, or out of habit, take a step back and consider the instructional goals you wish to achieve. Do you want students to reflect on a specific aspect of coursework, to research and answer a specific question, or to share progress and critique their peers’ work? Is a forum the best tool to support this goal? If so, there are several different flavors of forums available that can help address your specific teaching needs, important settings that can be tweaked to expedite a suitable learning environment, and some best practices to consider as a facilitator.
Forum types in Moodle
The Standard Forum for General Use is the most versatile and is a good fit for most discussion activities. It allows students to start their own discussion threads and reply to others, which is appropriate for forum activity structures in which students are asked to add their post as well as reply to peers. It provides the greatest potential for learner agency; students have space to “own” the threads that they start. They can express themselves via the choices they make when titling their threads and structuring their prose. Further, they can choose to participate in and reply to threads from others that they find the most interesting or stimulating. Instructors can also easily add topics or reply directly to student threads in this format.
For a conversation that is more tightly focused on a single topic, consider the Single Simple Discussion format. Here, students and faculty are all locked into one thread together, which narrows the scope of conversation and is best when the entire class needs to attend closely to each student’s post. This format emphasizes the communal and deemphasizes the individual.
Because it hides all other posts from students until they make their own initial post, the Q&A Forum is popular with instructors who want to ensure that students are uninfluenced by reading the work of peers who happen to post earlier in the discussion cycle. It can be effective, but it also tends to shut down conversation and inhibit elaboration or further exploration of a topic. If both originality and in-depth discussion are desired, it is recommended to collect original work via an Assignment Activity first, and then follow up with another type of forum for sharing and peer response.
In any class, but particularly online, setting expectations and establishing clear lines of communication are important. Face-to-face, you might have an opportunity to set guidelines for your in-class discussions early on. In an online environment, you need to be proactive. You should clearly communicate details and expectations about writing voice, citation requirements, and timeliness expectations. Will you require an initial post to be submitted early in the week, or can all posts be made last minute? Write up (or record and post an audio or video message) detailing what you expect from students and “pin” it to the top of the first discussion forum.
Further, consider using the discussion board itself as a tool to streamline communication — set up a dedicated, ungraded forum for students to ask questions relating to the course information or content. Just like in a live class, shyer students may benefit from the questions that bolder students ask, and some may be able to answer each other’s questions.
How often should you jump in?
You should consider early on how often and how heavily you plan on participating in the forum discussions. To some extent, this is up to faculty preference. Some instructors like to give specific feedback early and often or prompt for additional thinking, while others prefer to observe, letting the conversation develop naturally, and jump in only if the conversation needs to be steered back on track. There is some research-based evidence that supports the latter approach. One study found that “the more the instructors posted, the less frequently students posted and the shorter were the discussion threads”(Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007). That said, more is not the same as better; the authors caution us not to conflate volume with quality. Students in courses in which instructors were more active on the forums rated those faculty as more enthusiastic and displaying higher levels of subject-matter expertise on subsequent course evaluations. A second qualitative study notes that “students place a high value on individual responses from the instructor and a summary at the conclusion of the discussion topic” and that student engagement in online courses dropped when instructors did not post enough. (Reonieri, 2006) Clearly, there is value in faculty participation in discussion boards.
A happy medium may to be to employ a “light touch” during the active forum period — interjecting only to answer particularly difficult questions, to address misconceptions that have not been otherwise challenged, or to steer a discussion back on topic, and then provide individual feedback or summarize discussions at the end of the active discussion period. (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007)
Keeping Up With Assessment
If forums are going to be an important part of your course and require a high degree of student engagement and work to be worthwhile, you probably agree that they should be graded. This raises both pedagogical and practical concerns. Are you going to treat forums as “participation” by giving full points for meeting basic requirements, or are you going to critically assess student work? Will students have a chance to revise and improve their work? Will you use a rubric? These are questions you should be comfortable answering. In any case, your feedback is critical for students to understand whether or not they are contributing to the course discussions satisfactorily.
However you decide to proceed, if you are going to assign grades, it is recommended that you use Forum Ratings to mark student posts. Ratings can drastically reduce the administrative overhead of assessing forum posts. They allow you to grade work directly in the context of the forum with a dropdown menu underneath each student post where a score can be recorded. This score automatically transfers to the Moodle gradebook, so you don’t need to track or transfer grades manually. Further, ratings support a variety of aggregation methods. For example, it’s easy to use ratings to automatically tally the point values of marks or the total number of posts a student makes. If you are going to be reading and assessing dozens or even hundreds of posts per week, it’s vital that your capacity goes towards meaningful feedback, rather than ledger-keeping or copy/pasting.
Consider discussion board size
What is too small or too large for a productive online discussion? Reonieri (2006) identifies a number of issues that can impede effective online discussion forums when class sizes are too small (too few perspectives, not enough interaction) or too big (too overwhelming, shallow and repeated comments, off-topic tangents, heavy instructor workload) and posits the optimum discussion group size to be a “medium” class of 10–15 students.
In situations with larger class sizes, splitting the board into smaller groups is highly recommended, and it is better to err on the side of smaller groups than larger groups. Moodle includes a robust Groups feature to accommodate this need. Students can be placed into randomized or instructor-defined groups. Additionally, forums can be configured with either Separate Groups (students can only see posts from and interact with their group forum) or Visible Groups (students can only interact with their group forum but may optionally visit and view, but not contribute to, the other group spaces).
Moodle forums can send email notifications to any forums or discussions you or your students subscribe to. If you take the time to understand and set up these notifications, they can be incredibly helpful. When ill-understood or untamed, however, email notifications can be equally burdensome. Fewer things are more irritating than realizing you missed out on an important conversation because you simply didn’t know it has happened. At the same time, a deluge of email notifications is entirely overwhelming for today’s over-stimulated students (and, let’s be honest, instructors).
You can view your default forum settings by clicking on your user profile picture in Moodle and choosing Preferences, then Forums. You can make critical choices that affect your day-to-day experience in interacting with your students. You may choose to receive an individual email for each new post or a daily digest summary, whether to automatically subscribe to threads when you make a comment, and enable tracking to flag unread posts. These seem like small decisions, but when you are involved in several courses with dozens of forum posts per day, they can make all the difference. Taking some time to review and understand these options can go a long way toward minimizing frustrations, missed information, and wasted time in your use of Moodle forums. Further, you can share your learnings and recommendations with students — it will be more appreciated than you might think!
Wrapping Up Part One
In Part One of this post, I detailed how instructors can employ strategies to avoid issues that can derail successful forums:
Choosing the wrong type of forum for the job
Failing to communicate expectations
Posting too little, or too much
Difficulty in keeping up with assessments
Class sizes that are too large for meaningful discussions
See our Guide articles for help in understanding how to set up forums:
Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers and Education, 49(2), 193–213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2005.06.011
Reonieri, D. (2006). Optimizing the number of students for an effective online discussion board learning experience (thesis). Retrieved from ERIC: Institute of Education Sciences
Morris, Sean Michael, and Jesse Stommel. “The Discussion Forum Is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 8 May 2013, hybridpedagogy.org/the-discussion-forum-is-dead-long-live-the-discussion-forum/.
As an instructional technologist and graduate student, one of the most interesting things that happens to me is getting to experience tools or strategies that I work with professionally as a student. From the design and support side, you ask all the right questions and try to understand learners and instructional goals to design best-fit technology implementations and hopefully enhance learning. However, there is no substitute for the real-life experience of walking a mile in a student’s shoes by using ed tech tools as an actual enrolled, assessed, harried, busy learner.
Today I got that experience as an online class I am enrolled in at Western Oregon University’s MSEd-InfoTech program when we did an activity using VoiceThread. I have been using, recommending, and training instructors on use of this application for over two years —this was my first chance to engage with it as a “real” student.
If you’re not familiar with VoiceThread, essentially it is a tool that allows the creation of “threads” of multimedia slides. Each slide might contain, for example, an image, text, a video, or a page of a Word document —really any multimedia that can be presented on the web. The hook is that people can then add audio or webcam comments to engage in a rich conversation about whatever the slide contents are. You can even record ink annotations that play back synchronously with your recording when others listen or watch.
In this particular instance, my assignment was to use VoiceThread to record comments and annotations critiquing design elements from a selection of about 30 slides showing different posters, magazines, flyers, etc. This could have easily taken place on a discussion forum, but VoiceThread afforded the opportunity for more personal and textured thinking and interaction.
I didn’t want to use VoiceThread in a “vanilla” way; that would be too easy. I wanted to push it a bit and see what I could do with VoiceThread. So instead of using the app through a web browser on my computer, I downloaded the VoiceThread app on my iPad Pro. I used BeatsX wireless headphones/mic to record audio comments and an Apple Pencil to make annotations.
Overall the experience was quite nice. Using the iPad app was intuitive for me as an experienced web user. I could swipe to navigate slides, and the multi-touch screen was nice to have so that I could zoom in on small images. The Pencil worked well enough for annotation. It’s better than using a mouse to draw (which is the only option in the web version). However you can tell that the app is not specifically optimized for the Apple Pencil, so it feels a little messy to draw with. One problem I had was with my headphones. For some reason after recording a comment via the headphone mic, I was not able to preview my recording at first. If I waited approximately 30-45 seconds on the preview screen, my audio suddenly began playing back. When I tested a recording without the headphones, I did not encounter this problem, and the recorded audio was on par or perhaps even a bit better from the built-in iPad mic.
Beyond the technical experience, I can say that as a student I got a lot of value out of being able to hear my peers voices and follow their thinking through simultaneous annotation. After spending a lot of time talking with the same people on a discussion forum all quarter, this was a nice change of pace, and one helped to enrich the sense of community in our class. At the graduate level, finding novel ways to facilitate peer interaction is a must. My courses are full of smart, insightful, funny people, and I appreciated the chance to get to know those of them that gravitated towards leaving audio or video comments a little better by listening and watching instead of just reading.
This essay examines media that was produced to report or comment on the FCC’s vote to officially propose a change in rules governing internet service and mobile broadband providers, which took place on May 18th, 2017.
In my survey of media relating to this story, I looked at:
Net neutrality is quite complex. The May 17th FCC vote was just the most recent event in a story that has been developing for years and was passed into official regulatory policy in 2015 with broad public support. Existing regulations are widely expected to be reversed by the current FCC, whose chairman was appointed by President Trump.
Net neutrality in the Media
While net neutrality is widely considered to be an important story, it does not get as much attention as one might expect in the mainstream news. Net neutrality is often perceived as a complicated, boring, or “nerdy” topic that requires substantial technical and policy knowledge to understand. Further, much media time and attention is devoted to the unprecedented behavior of the Trump administration at the expense of other issues, including net neutrality. That said, considering the frequency of Google searches for the term “net neutrality” there is evidence that public interest in the issue spikes when attention is drawn to it by commentators or upon the reporting of events such as the FCC vote to approve a proposal of rule changes.
Figure 1 – Google Searches for Net Neutrality
Moreover, there is vigorous debate at the fringes of mainstream attention from the communications, technology, and media industries, and from participants in “internet culture.” Deep disagreement about the benefits and costs of net neutrality policy exists along political or ideological lines.
Pro Net Neutrality Sources
On one side is an alliance of pro-net neutrality sources, activists, and commentators. Net neutrality backers include large tech, e-commerce, entertainment media, and social media firms who rely on information networks to connect to their customers, media sources, websites, and blogs that cover the technology industry, anti-trust/pro-consumer corporate watchdogs, left-leaning academics and politicians, and centrist/left-leaning media outlets.
There are fewer sources opposing net neutrality, but they are backed by powerful institutions. Opposing net neutrality are internet service providers (ISPs), right-leaning and Libertarian media and academics, and the FCC itself, whose current chairman, Ajit Pai, cultivates a carefully constructed public persona using various forms of media.
Mainstream reporting on net neutrality is designed for a wide audience, and often includes basic primer information explaining the concept of net neutrality. Specialty technology or political sites speak to their audiences with more specificity and frame the issue in relevant terms for that audience, for example, as an issue of fairness and equity, of excessive government regulation, or of corporate malfeasance.
The FCC is legally required to solicit public comment on proposed changes, and will likely also be challenged to provide legal rationale in court. For this reason, opponents of the bill are very active in attempting to marshal public opposition to the FCC’s actions. Most notably, the comedian & political commentator John Oliver ran a lengthy pro-net neutrality segment on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight, and set up a website to make it easier for citizens to submit comments on the FCC’s proposed changes. Many media sources represent Oliver as the face of the pro-net neutrality position.
At the same time, Ajit Pai has made numerous appearances on cable news, given press conferences, and produced videos for social media platforms blasting current policy and advocating change, and ISP industry organizations have run advertisements and produced media with an anti-regulation agenda. This seems to be aimed at influencing public opinion and starting to build the legal case justifying the FCC’s rule changes.
Linguistics and Imagery
Different sources frame the concept of net neutrality very differently. A variety of styles, words, and imagery are used to communicate media messages about net neutrality and the FCC’s vote, adding subtexts to media messages.
Pro-Net Neutrality, Anti-FCC Headlines
From the perspective of tech writers, the FCC’s formal vote took on an apocalyptic quality: “Net neutrality rules all but doomed after FCC starts teardown” reads a headline from consumer technology site CNet. This language gives the impression that the vote will cause violence and destruction. Tech site Ars Technica goes further, using evocative words to conjure up imagery of pain and suffering: “Net neutrality going down in flames as FCC votes to kill Title II rules.” (Emphasis added)
Similar sentiments are widely seen on YouTube and Twitter; social media is a hotbed of passionate net neutrality sentiment. Tweets from thought-leaders, politicians, technology companies, media companies, political advocacy groups, and more implore users to “save the internet” and oppose the FCC action. Twitter itself created a unique graphic that automatically accompanies each Tweet with the #netneutrality tag – a buffering symbol that is sure to resonate with any internet user who has ever been frustrated with slow loading times. The platform itself has pro-net neutrality messages embedded within it, such that a source critical of net neutrality may be discouraged from using the relevant hashtag.
Mainstream news coverage took a measured tone. The FCC vote represents net neutrality being “rolled back” according to the Washington Post and NPR News, a term that evokes the back-and-forth of laws and policies being written only to be undone as the political headwinds shift. For a reader of these headlines, net neutrality may be lost in the shuffle of “politics as usual,” with little emphasis on relevance to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. The NPR piece includes a straightforward account of the vote and a fairly neutral explanation of the issues at stake, including strongly worded quotes from both Ajit Pai and dissenting Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Some media pieces delved deeper; a video segment on CBS Money explored the topic and the key players in some detail. CBS correspondent Errol Barnett discussed his interview with Ajit Pai and concluded that “when this issue is spelled out for people, it really does scare them,” while noting that changes in net neutrality policy are de-emphasized “while the nation’s attention is fixated on the what’s happening with the President.”
Meanwhile, ISPs, both directly and through industry consortiums and lobbying groups, are putting out advertisements, Tweets, and videos that offer reassuring, friendly messages that paint telecommunications companies as good corporate citizens. These messages affirm ISPs’ commitment to a general ideal such as the “Open Internet” or “Internet Freedom” – implying that they should be trusted to follow the fairness principles that net neutrality laws legislate voluntarily, while they simultaneously oppose said laws and pour money into anti-regulation lobbying efforts. Needless to say, the pro-net neutrality internet is suspect of these messages.
Anti-Net Neutrality/Regulation, Pro-FCC Headlines
Fox Business uses the term “repeal” to describe the FCC’s intentions. Interestingly, controversial alt-right site Breitbart, in their article covering the FCC’s vote also uses the term “repeal.” Though the word repeal is innocuous, a reader of these sources may associate net neutrality with the unrelated but highly politicized Affordable Care Act, which is the subject of a “Repeal and Replace” effort by President Trump and Congress. The Breitbart article goes on to celebrate the FCC vote with unconcealed glee, calling it a “return to freedom” for the internet.
Conservative and Libertarian sources were active on social media, defending the FCC’s vote and focusing primarily on ideas about regulation and free markets. Conservative writer Ben Shapiro, responding to a Tweet from Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, posted a jab at net neutrality’s sometimes anti-corporate bent, pointing out that behemoths like Facebook and Google are staunch supporters.
Some headlines act to grab attention, while not necessarily framing the issue in a strong negative or positive light. A CBS Money headline offers to explain “Why net neutrality could go the way of the floppy disk,” using humor to draw the viewer in. The text article and video segment linked to from the headline are measured and informative pieces that explore differing perspectives and don’t shy away from dealing with pertinent issues.
Other outlets used eye-catching headlines that are less humorous, and ultimately less informative. “The FCC did NOT vote to roll back net neutrality” reads a headline from the Libertarian news and culture site The Daily Caller. The article points out that the FCC vote does not in fact legally change policy, but rather marks the formal beginning of the FCC’s ostensibly exploratory “Notice of Proposed Rule Change” process in which public comment will be sought, and claims that competing sources are misreporting the facts. While it’s technically true that the FCC vote is the beginning of a lengthy process, Ajit Pai and the FCC have made their intentions to press for the elimination of net neutrality rules abundantly clear. One must ask if this headline is in the service of accuracy and fair-mindedness, or if it may, deliberately or not, obfuscate the FCC’s intentions, discredit legitimate assertions, and confuse the issue.
By far the worst, most shameful headline found in this survey was from an editorial published in Forbes: “The Shocking Thing About Net Neutrality That Few Are Reporting.” The title of this article is clickbait designed to sensationalize the issues in a potential reader’s mind. The main thrust of the article makes a dubious and logically unsound comparison between net neutrality rules and the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC rule related to broadcast news that was rolled back during the Reagan administration. All told, this author found no new information that wasn’t reported elsewhere, and certainly no shocking revelations.
The imagery used by news sources in articles also tells us something about their worldview and how they expect the reader to emotionally and cognitively approach the issue of net neutrality. I noticed three main motifs in the imagery accompanying these articles: images of pro-net neutrality protests, images of the façade of the FCC building (neutral), and images of Ajit Pai (both positive and negative).
Images of protest are used to associate net neutrality with political struggle and civic action. The shot below appears in several pieces, including one from Ars Technica.
Pai himself has emerged as the face of the debate, and he is presented in positive or negative lights by different sources. Looking at two photographs of Mr. Pai below, one would get two very different impressions of his demeanor and personality, and perhaps experience different initial emotional reactions to the news pieces. Is Pai a nefarious schemer in the pocket of big businesses like Verizon and Comcast? Or a smiling champion of freedom and sound economic principles? The two photos below tell different stories.
Pai plays an active role in cultivating an image in his public appearances. He is often seen drinking coffee out of a large, novelty-sized coffee cup in interviews and Tweeting references to the film Big Lebowski, disingenuously portraying himself as a “fun, down to earth nerd,” according to Jon Oliver. On the day of the FCC vote, Pai appeared in a YouTube video released by the Independent Journal Review, a conservative outlet that consciously attempts to produce viral content. In the video, Pai reads and responds to “mean Tweets” in the fashion of a series of short clips popularized by Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Informing the public or preaching to the choir?
Based on analysis of various articles and posts on social media, it’s clear that the issue of net neutrality is understood differently by individuals with differing ideologies and backgrounds. Mainstream sources often begin from the premise that net neutrality is ill-understood by the public at large and seek to educate the reader or viewer and to explore the issues surrounding net neutrality and related legislation. These stories are framed in simple terms, and metaphors (such as highways with fast lanes, slow lanes, and toll booths) are often used to illustrate the situation. One video produced by King 5 News in Seattle featured a reporter talking to citizens and asking the viewer to consider possible impacts of undoing net neutrality on ordinary people. Rather than highlighting concerns about the stifling of innovation from small companies or the growing consolidation of power in the hands of ISPs, the video segment’s focus is on the possible slowing down of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix streams.
Current polling shows that net Neutrality in principle has high levels of public support, according to the non-profit Knight Foundation’s report on the Net Neutrality debate. With that in mind, most industry specific or politically-minded sources seem to be writing, Tweeting, or speaking to their audiences as if they already have an understood position on net neutrality. Indeed, rather than seeking to change the reader’s mind, the pieces often seem designed to spur the reader into an action or to equip the reader with rhetorical arguments that can be used on one side of the debate or the other.
For liberal and technology focused sites, this call to action tends to take the form of attempts to mobilize the audience, to spur pro-net neutrality activism on social media, and to flood the FCC’s website with comments supporting net neutrality. John Oliver has been effective as a modern entertainer/newsman/organizer, garnering so many online comments that the FCC website crashed intermittently after his net neutrality segment was broadcast.
Conservative and Libertarian sources, who are most likely aware that net neutrality is broadly popular, do not present issues of equity and fairness through the same lens. Libertarian sources with a younger, center-right demographic tend to focus on the government’s role in regulating markets as harmful. It is presented as an economic issue. Fox News, with viewers averaging over 70 years old, obfuscated the issue by focusing on what was portrayed as hysterical or abusive pro-net neutrality voices and protests. Pai appeared on Fox Business’s Making Money With Charlie Payne to be interviewed about his “viral” video and was invited to “share again with us…the hypocrisy and the vitriolic anger aimed at you at such a personal level.” Rather than engaging with different ideological sides of the issue, viewers of this program were prompted to disdain people on the other side of the debate and presented with the notion that pro-net neutrality voices are unhinged, violent, or racist.
Both sides of the debate claim to seek measures that would result in positive impacts for the underdog or underserved populations — either by requiring ISPs to treat the internet as a public good with ensured equal access for all or by eliminating regulations that discourage investment in rural broadband infrastructure and innovative consumer products. That said, the voices in the conversation seem to be predominantly urban, male, and of a high socio-economic status.
Because net neutrality is often presented as a technology story and as a partisan political story, large swathes of the public who may be affected are not necessarily engaged with the relevant issues beyond how it may affect their Netflix fix.
The companies that own mainstream media outlets have good reason to worry about the creeping power of ISPs in an unregulated network marketplace, as companies like Verizon are acquiring media production capacity in deals for content companies AOL and Yahoo — owning both the content product and the content delivery system. At the same point, powerful technology companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google are changing the economic landscape. These companies have their own anti-trust issues and regularly oppose any regulations that might keep them from maximizing profits, just as the telecoms do. For them, net neutrality is good business. It minimizes a potential cost — a toll — on their side of the content delivery system they use to deliver content and reap ad revenue.
The Libertarian or conservative viewpoint, held by the current FCC chairman, and presented by outlets like the Daily Caller, is that relaxing regulation will result in fairness, and that the free market is best equipped to create and distribute wealth from a commodity such as internet access.
Net neutrality is an important issue, but not always an easy one to explain or to understand. Regardless of the source, every media message about net neutrality is presented from a perspective; messages privilege some information and leave other facts out. Our perceptions are colored by word choices, the characteristics of images, and the context quotes are presented. I’ll end this piece with words from Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:
“We have to be responsible. We really have to get at the truth. That takes investigation. It takes serious consideration of what you’re reading.”