Was a time that the most sophisticated device a student would bring into a classroom was a pocket calculator. And math teachers weren’t too happy about that. (Actually, there was a time the most sophisticated device a student would bring into a school was a slide rule, but we aren’t old enough to remember that, are we?)
That calculator, as we’ve famously been told, had all the computing power it took to put a man on the moon half a generation before. It’s now a single, and not particularly sophisticated, app on a smart phone that hosts hundreds of them, and is in every student’s pocket. And, in fact, odds are it’s not the only device they’re carrying.
The math teacher of a generation ago would have a conniption. Not just can the students perform calculations without knowing their times tables, they’ve got access to boundless knowledge—much of it inaccurate—in their hands.
There are a lot of good reasons for banning the use of smart devices by students in the classroom. They can be a distraction; text messaging is a ready avenue for cheating on exams; and their use can be an act of absolute disrespect for a teacher. But mobile devices can also enhance the classroom experience. The key is creating an infrastructure that promotes an acceptable use policy.
Complicating matters is the fact that teachers and administrators are dependent on such mobile devices as well, but for different reasons. Remember there was always the teachers’ version of the textbook that had the answers in the back? Students weren’t supposed to get those. And wireless access is no different.
Students need the kind of wireless access that makes it easier to do in-class assignments. This is largely going to be text- and image-based research. Right now, high-bandwidth applications like video aren’t a priority for in-class assignments and put a strain on a school’s wireless infrastructure.
(This doesn’t mean those applications won’t be necessary for the future, and as we’ve seen, the future’s not as far away as we think. However, the power and bandwidth of wireless access will be changing alongside, meaning the impact on infrastructure won’t be as severe.)
Teachers, on the other hand, might want to use online video and audio as a teaching tool. It isn’t filmstrips and VHS anymore; there’s much more learning material available online. They will need much more bandwidth than students.
There’s also the question of data centre access. It’s not strictly about wireless, but it’s related. If you’ve seen the movie Wargames, you know why students shouldn’t have access to some internal systems. This is more of a security and permissions-based issue—there is much personal data, on students, teachers, and administrators that can’t be widely accessible. (And, like in Wargames, you can’t have students changing their grades.)
You can control the bandwidth and access available on site through the school’s wireless network. But increasingly, students are coming to school packing data packages on their phones and tablets. You can block sites, narrow bandwidth, and otherwise manage Wi-Fi traffic, but the school’s infrastructure doesn’t allow for blocking cellular-based data traffic.
While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S. has come down clearly on the matter of venues blocking Wi-Fi access of attendees through their personal devices and hotspots—that is, they can’t, and you can ask Marriott International about the six-figure fine it paid because of that—there is no clear policy in Canada. The Canadian Radio-television and Communications Committee (CRTC) says it has no regulation blocking such actions.
The technology exists to do so. The questions are: Is it worth the cost? And is it too invasive? The answer’s the same as it with wireless usage in schools in general. A clear usage policy, clearly communicated and fairly enforced, is a more efficient, effective, and collaborative solution to the problem.