Managing Campus Wi-Fi Networks: In Favor of Connectivity

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Despite concerns about distractions from Wi-Fi, providing a robust and unrestricted wireless infrastructure has become part of the cost of doing business for higher education.

Read an opposing viewpoint.

Managing Campus Wi-Fi Networks: In Favor of Connectivity
Credit: Scott Ladzinski / EDUCAUSE © 2018

The debate continues: Should an instructor be able to limit or turn off Wi-Fi in the classroom during class sessions?

Ever since the advent of pervasive wireless connectivity, a debate has developed over control of Wi-Fi in higher education's classrooms. Should an instructor be able to limit or even turn off wireless access in the classroom during class hours?

This debate resurfaced when the Associated Press ran a story on March 12 titled "Purdue mulls policy to limit Wi-Fi access on campus." This was picked up as a topic of discussion by the EDUCAUSE CIO constituent group, resulting in a string of posts contributing to the debate.

This debate about the distraction of students by mobile devices is a long one; the Wi-Fi question is the latest round. The ubiquity of student-owned network devices has made this conversation more urgent, if for no other reason than the sheer number of such devices. But as old as this debate is, it is hardly resolved, as this latest flurry of posts shows. One of the reasons for its longevity is its importance: Is Wi-Fi access during class hours too much of distraction for all but the most dedicated students? Shouldn't the instructor have the prerogative to limit/turn off Wi-Fi access in the classroom during class sessions?

To help focus this debate, we asked two of the participants in the CIO CG debate who took opposite sides to make their cases. Arguing against instructor prerogative is Joe Moreau, vice chancellor of technology at Foothill-De Anza Community College District; arguing in favor in another blog post is Luke Fernandez, a computer science faculty member at Weber State University. We thank them for their thoughtful contributions.

What do you think? Which side has the greater merit? We welcome further discussions on the EDUCAUSE constituent group lists.

—Malcolm Brown, THE blog editor

I have served as a higher education CIO for the past 18 years at both commuter and residential campuses. I have been fortunate to work with superb teams of technologists who support everything from administrative systems to faculty/staff computers and computer labs to wired and wireless networks. These teams comprise highly professional and passionate individuals dedicated to our mission of serving students. As a result, I receive very few complaints about the services we provide. Occasionally, an individual will struggle with something and bring it to my attention. Overall, these complaints are generally easy to address and are almost always resolved by listening to the people struggling, helping them understand how best to overcome their struggle and taking a specific (and often very small) action to resolve it.

Over the years, the service for which I have received the greatest number of and most vehement complaints is our wireless network. Seemingly, there is never a strong enough signal everywhere users want it. There are never enough access points where a high density of users congregate. Often there is not enough bandwidth to accommodate the volume of content users want to consume, and chants of "Why is the network so slow today?" can be heard in every corner of the campus. My exceptional teams have always done their very best to keep up with the ever-growing demand for wireless connectivity.

We used to refer to the wireless network as the "network of convenience" and the wired network as the "real" network. As the proliferation of mobile and portable devices has continued to accelerate, the only network our users know (or care about) is the wireless network. Additionally, the consumerization of enterprise IT has brought with it a set of expectations from all users that anything they can do in their home or at a coffee house should be supported on campus. So, how does this evolving set of expectations around network connectivity impact our academic mission?

We're investing more and more resources into the expansion and upgrade of our wireless network. There is a seemingly endless numbers of spaces on campus that have never had connectivity but for which connectivity has become indispensable because of some new application or service. Every other year there is a new standard that delivers greater speed, capacity, and security, requiring access point replacements or upgrades. The job is never done, and perhaps that is okay. With this increased investment in wireless connectivity comes a host of meaningful returns—improved access for students, faculty, and staff to campus resources and collaborative opportunities; greater efficiency in support services; reduced infrastructure costs in supporting the growing internet of things, opportunities for automation; and many others. These investments are helping our campuses become richer environments in which to learn, work, and live.

We do hear concerns from faculty and administrators that students are using our wireless infrastructure for nonacademic and potentially frivolous activities. Some believe the pervasiveness of the wireless network is creating a distraction in classrooms and other instructional spaces. Others are concerned we are investing precious institutional resources in the wireless infrastructure to allow students to play games, download movies, and check their social media accounts. All of those accusations may, in fact, be correct. However, limiting or restricting the use and availability of the wireless network may not be the answer to these concerns. Whether commuter or residential, our campuses are also a home to our students for some part of their day or a larger portion of their life. Where we (faculty, staff, administrators) have traditionally seen a distinction between the various components of our lives (work, school, play, home, family, etc.), students of this generation see much less separation. For better or worse, today's students see the components of their lives flowing together seamlessly. That flow is supported by the technology they use on campus. We may bristle at the thought of referring to our students as customers, but they clearly see themselves in this type of relationship with our institutions. Again, for better or worse, they believe they're paying us for a service, and we have an obligation to meet their expectations. If not, they will take their business elsewhere. Students expect that the wireless network on campus not only will be everywhere they want it but also will be fast and reliable. Students will be able to use it for whatever purpose they see fit because it is one of the services for which they are paying — often at a fairly high price.

I have often been asked by my faculty colleagues, "Can't you let me turn off the wireless network in my classroom?" If it were only that simple. There are a number of technical and geographic issues involved in this proposition. It is certainly possible for a network administrator to disable any particular access point. However, it is not a function designed for end-user control. Could it be? Probably, but at what cost?

Also, many of our academic facilities are truly mixed-use spaces. Lecture halls, seminar rooms, laboratories, collaboration spaces, and faculty/staff offices often coexist within close proximity to each other. Unfortunately, the radio waves that deliver wireless connectivity in these spaces do not neatly conform to spatial boundaries. Access points from multiple locations frequently overlap. Subsequently, shutting down the access points in one classroom does not mean that signals from adjoining spaces cannot be received. Of course, there is no legal way for campuses to mitigate cellular signals in our facilities. Simply shutting down campus-owned wireless access points in a room or building will simply prompt students to use their smartphones to access the desired content or as a personalized "tethering" point to provide access for a laptop or tablet.

Limiting the use of campus wireless networks to force students to pay attention or restricting Wi-Fi use to the resources we deem useful will only decrease the richness of our extraordinary environments and will likely create resentment among the stakeholders we care about the most. There is already a crisis of confidence among the American public regarding the value of a college education; let's not give students and their families any more reason to believe they are being overcharged or shortchanged in this relationship.

Perhaps we need to reexamine our traditional approaches to instruction and support and realign delivery with the opportunities available through the new view of life students possess and that wireless technology provides. Even if we cannot muster the will to undergo such a transformation, we should at least recognize that providing a robust and unrestricted wireless infrastructure is simply part of the cost of doing business for a 21st-century college or university.

Joseph Moreau serves as Vice Chancellor, Technology at Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

© 2018 Joseph Moreau. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.