The posting below looks at alternatives to campus-wide wireless networks in these difficult economic times. It is by Michael L. Rodgers, Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and is #45 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 18, Number 2, February, 2009. © Copyright 1996-2009. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
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Do Students Need a Campus- Wide Wireless Network?
Not Business as Usual!
In December 11, 2008, a letter (1) from my university's President to the campus community warned that general revenue operations appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year may be "dramatically reduced." The letter went on to reveal that key legislators have requested impact statements for appropriation reductions of 15, 20, and 25%.
Despite instructions from my President not to "panic," and reassurances that the institution's response to the shortfall would be formulated through an "open, public, and collegial" process, uncertainty and unease are widespread. Emergency department meetings, program reviews, and public forums to identify cost-saving measures are common. Search committees charged to fill open positions accelerated their work, in hopes of producing signed con- tracts before hiring freezes went into effect. In general, plans to expand and improve our capabilities have been reshaped to reflect a survival-mode outlook. One notably pessimistic colleague sent an e-mail to my department titled, "the sky is falling." People are worried for the future of their courses, programs, institutions, and careers.
Debate Amidst Uncertainty
The somber budget news came as the University debated the merits of investing in a ubiquitous wireless
network. Proponents of campus- wide wireless (wi-fi) were not hard to find. Those charged with recruiting students to campus advocated strong investment in technology, so as to maintain the university's attractive image with prospective students. Recruiters frequently reported prospective students' keen interest in the level of technology in place, as expressed through technology-focused questions. The tenor of the questions was less about discovery of new technologies, and more about reassurance that familiar technologies - including wi-fi - were freely available on campus. Technology was seen as a "me-too" defense against competing institutions' technology offerings. Recruiters pointed to media coverage and ads proclaiming the high level of technology available at competing institutions: campus-wide wi-fi was often cited as strong support for those claims.
Anecdotal evidence from students already on campus suggested that students would bring laptop computers to class, and rely on them more heavily while studying between classes, if the campus had ubiquitous wi-fi. Some
faculty, staff, and students saw wi-fi as another tool to be used to build and maintain campus community.
Emergency responders proposed a wi-fi based campus-wide emergency alert system. Those faculty not
threatened by the prospect of students working online during classroom lectures looked to ubiquitous wi-fi as a platform for experimentation in teaching and learning applications, especially those involving student-student
Campus politics also favored ubiquitous wi-fi: existing wi-fi hotspots were installed (vide infra) in accord with the desires of high- profile groups, such as Student Government and those units on campus that had independent funding to pay for wi-fi. Ubiquitous wi-fi was seen as an inclusive, democratic solution to Internet
access on campus.
It is fair to say that support for ubiquitous wi-fi was broad. So why was there even a debate? Certainly, cost was a concern: some in the IT office placed a million-dollar price tag on a wi-fi installation robust enough to reach the entire campus. Even before the recession raised deep concerns about the budget, the prospect of funding a relatively slow network that would indiscriminately bring Internet access to restrooms, janitorial
closets, and other noninstructional areas seemed wasteful and overdone. Security was also a concern, especially for the IT folks who would be responsible for it.
The argument usually pointed to increased risk as a consequence of the very ubiquity that wi-fi was
intended to provide: "Wi-fi is inherently more difficult to secure because access to the network is much easier than with a wired network." Moreover, the campus (including four branch campuses) was already heavily invested in a wired network, with wired computers and network drops in classrooms, offices, dorms, and many
other areas around campus where learning was expected to occur. The wired network overcame numerous challenges associated with building construction: some buildings were so impervious to broadcast signals that, in the words of one IT staffer (2), "the NSA could move in there."
And, the campus already had significant wireless access: over 70 wireless access points (WAPs) were installed in areas other than residence halls, with additional WAPs in the residence hall student lounges, generally following policies to place WAPs where students are (3). Interestingly, when asked about the need for a wireless network, students in an honors political science class (4) were skeptical, believing that wi-fi made access to course content too easy, so that students would stop coming to class as a result.
Perhaps as a result of the concerns raised, the University's President placed a moratorium on wireless installations, to give the campus community an opportunity to develop a thoughtful plan for wireless access. One alternative to wi-fi floated during the moratorium was to implement a network based on cell phone technology, such as the 3G network used by multi-featured cell phones, of which the iPhone is the most notable example.
Proponents of the cell phone network saw it as the most cost-effective way to deploy a campus- wide emergency alert system. Moreover, there was a sense, consistent with published surveys, that the mobile phone, not the laptop computer, will continue to be the most widely-used connectivity technology. For example, in the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey (5) "The Future of the Internet III," nearly 80% of experts surveyed agreed with the statement, "[t]he mobile phone is the primary connection tool for most people in the world" in the year 2020.
Cell phones can even support increasingly popular "clicker"-based pedagogies. For example, Poll Everywhere (6) allows instructors to collect student responses through a text message system, obviating the need to distribute stand-alone infrared (IR) or radio-frequency (RF) "clicker" devices to students.
Teaching and Learning When Budgets Are Bad
Our debate over ubiquitous wireless was put on hold for planning purposes, but now the budget threatens to delay a decision. Still, with the university hoping to defray cuts in its state appropriation through increased fee collections from higher enrollments and improved retention, the delay may be brief. In any case, a decision to implement campus-wide wi-fi, opt for a cell phone solution, or do nothing at all, will shape the way
that our students use technology to learn. Speed, cost, and security issues aside, both the "do-nothing"
approach and the laptop-centric wi-fi solution would connect students to the Internet (and to each other) on machines that support the most powerful software tools that we have available on campus. Students would work with information in a Windows environment that is designed to support sophisticated date treatments using multiple software tools simultaneously.
On the other hand, a phone- based network, like the Information Commons that we have previously (7) explored, possesses an informality that suggests spontaneity and simplicity. If students want to do "quick stuff," such as a simple Google search (8), a check of the day's weather report, or a brief note to members of a student's project team, cell phones provide the easiest access. Is this enough, or do students need more? Thus, the choice is more an issue of platform than connectivity: where are the people who are most likely to use a Windows machine - walking down the street or in a lab?
In more prosperous times, the solution to the problem of ubiquitous connectivity might have been to host BOTH a wi-fi and a phone-based network, because both phones and laptops support student interactions with information and communities that we would find worthwhile and deeply connected to student practices and expectations. But these are not ordinary times. If you are a faculty member contemplating how you
want your students to interact with information, consider carefully what kind of network your institution
maintains. Better yet, get involved in the debate about the kind of network your institution SHOULD HAVE,
to provide guidance about ways students SHOULD interact with content. In these days of constrained budgets, infrastructure decisions like the one outlined here may be the only avenue that remains to influence the way that teaching and learning happen on campus.
1 Ken Dobbins, "Southeast Newswire," e- mail to Southeast Missouri State University faculty and staff, 11 Dec. 2008.
2 A. Sprengel, Personal interview, 12 Jan. 2009.
3 For example, DePaul's practice in "DePaul University chooses an SSL VPN to connect students and staff seamlessly and easily to its wireless network," Communications News Sept. 2008: 17-20.
4 B. Smentkowski, Personal interview, 7 Jan. 2009.
5 Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, "The Future of the Internet III," Reports: Internet Evolution, 14 Dec. 2008 (Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, DC). Accessed 15 Jan. 2009. http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/ 270/report_display.asp.
7 M. L. Rodgers and D. A. Starrett, "Are You a 21st Century Library-Ready Instructor?" The National Teaching and Learning Forum, May 2006: 15 (3).
8 Readers who recall my recent TechPed column on aging will recognize the value of a quick and simple Google search done anytime/anyplace.