Wireless Access in Class?

David Warlick started this conversation about free wifi access at the American Library Association conference this month in New Orleans.  Most (all right, both) of the technology conferences I’ve attended in the last year have had free WIFI available, but only in designated areas. This is the first time I’ve seen that they’re providing it for the whole conference (except the exhibit hall). He sees this as a movement, where people are starting to view ubiquitious wireless access as something that we should have available in most places. You might compare it to cell phone coverage, where you more or less expect to be able to get a signal in most places.

This started a discussion of wireless networks in schools, and Brian Crosby picked up on it. He commented that school IT departments frown on wireless access because it’s hard to secure. Ryan Collins explained how easy it is to secure wireless devices by not broadcasting SSIDs and using WPA encryption. I chimed in on Ryan’s blog about how that would make it difficult (impossible?) for users to connect their own devices to the wireless network.

That’s when I realized that we were talking about different things. If a school purchases laptops and creates a wireless network for them, it’s fairly easy to set it up with a reasonable amount of security. I call these "known" laptops. The district owns them, the IT department has installed or approved the installation of software on them. They’re generally controlled. The likelihood that they’re going to have malware, out-of-date anti-virus software, port scanners and hacking tools, and other educationally unproductive software is about the same as it would be for the wired devices. Everything’s a known quanity.

Except that it’s a bad idea. Unless you really need the space, it’s a lot cheaper to buy desktops. Right now, we have 30 desktop computers in our high school media center and 14 laptops. The laptops have to be used in the room, because we don’t have wifi anywhere else. It would have been cheaper (if we had had the space) to just put in 60 desktops, and we’d have 36% more computers.

The real advantage to wireless is that we can let people bring their *own* devices in. So let them bring their own laptops (or even PSPs, for that matter). Allow them to connect to the wireless network, but don’t let them do anything until they log in. After logging in, seriously restrict their activity, but give them basic access to the things they need (usually web access). We’re never going to get to 1:1. We’ll probably never get to 5:1 in any realistic way. So why not let the students bring their own?

Interestingly, colleges are moving in the opposite direction. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article about colleges banning laptops in class. Apparently, when you have a big lecture class where the students all have Internet access, they’re less likely to pay attention to the professor. Having spent most of my teaching career teaching in rooms where all of the students had Internet access in class, I can sympathize. As a teacher, you sometimes need undivided attention. But at the college level, the burden is entirely on the student to learn from the class. They should be making their own decisions about appropriate or inappropriate behavior, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other students or the class as a whole.

So where do we stand at K-12? We don’t ban student laptops (though I’ve never seen a student carrying one around). We also don’t provide WIFI in classrooms. This summer, we’ll be expanding the media center’s wireless access to the cafeteria and most of the high school campus outdoors. Then, we’ll focus on study hall rooms and other public areas. The emphasis will be on providing wireless where the most students can get the most benefit from it during unstructured time. It’ll be a long time before we have students surfing the web in class.