Should IT Provide Faculty with Tools to Disable Wi-Fi in Their Classrooms?

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Providing faculty with the option to limit or disable Wi-Fi during class sessions acknowledges the distractions that attend the technology and asserts the value of student engagement.

Read an opposing viewpoint.

Should IT Provide Faculty with Tools to Disable Wi-Fi in Their Classrooms?
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 in favor of instructor prerogative is Luke Fernandez, a computer science faculty member at Weber State University; arguing against in another blog post is Joe Moreau, vice chancellor of technology at Foothill-De Anza Community College District. 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

In 1930, The New York Times conducted a survey of college and university deans, asking whether radio should be regulated on campus. Dean Clarence Mendell of Yale University opined, "We have, at Yale, no central radio for broadcasting to the student body, nor do we encourage private sets. I believe that life is already too complicated and noisy for the best results without introducing any further disruptions." Mendell's reaction was not universally shared. But it illuminates the fact that campus faculty and administrators have argued for quite a while about the disruptions caused by radio waves and how they should be regulated in order to best forward teaching and learning.

The advent of Wi-Fi has catalyzed the most recent version of this debate. On one side are faculty who petition their IT departments to develop options to disable Wi-Fi access while students are in class. On the other side are an array of technologists who largely resist these petitions. The rationales for their resistance are multifold, but when examined more closely, the arguments lose much of their traction. Let's address each in turn:

  1. FCC regulations prohibit interfering with Wi-Fi signals. Although the FCC prohibits the jamming of Wi-Fi, there are no legal prohibitions on turning off Wi-Fi access points.
  2. Disabling Wi-Fi would draw too much ire. If IT staff gave faculty the means of throttling Wi-Fi outside the classroom, there would likely be adverse repercussions. However, faculty are not asking for such powers. They are only asking that they be given the means to disable Wi-Fi in their classrooms during class hours, which is technically possible with the newer, higher-frequency Wi-Fi access points.
  3. Even when Wi-Fi is turned off, the cell network is still usually available. Students will therefore continue to be distracted regardless of whether Wi-Fi is turned off. In most situations, people still have access to digital distractions when Wi-Fi is disabled. But simply because digital distractions already exist in the classroom does not justify importing additional ones. Regulating Wi-Fi won't prevent every instance of digital abuse in the classroom, but it will discourage some of it.
  4. Classroom distraction is not the fault of Wi-Fi but is rather the fault of poor pedagogy. It is true that student distraction is sometimes the result of poor pedagogy. But this is hardly categorically the case. Often students become distracted because of competing stimuli. And these stimuli are increasingly present in the classroom with increasing access to digital media.
  5. Faculty should police distraction themselves by establishing clear classroom policies rather than relying on technology to do it for them. While faculty need to play a role in regulating behavior in their classrooms, this doesn't absolve IT departments from any responsibility in the matter. The problems of distraction are amplified by Wi-Fi, and since IT installs and maintains Wi-Fi, it is complicit in exacerbating distraction in the classroom.
  6. Students are adults. If they prefer to surf the web during class, it's their choice. Neither faculty nor IT departments should attempt to regulate it. In the modern university, most students are legally adults. So there is some traction in arguing that if students want to use Wi-Fi in class, it is not the business of faculty or IT to infringe on adult freedoms. This argument would hold up if students who were using Wi-Fi to distract themselves weren't distracting their classmates. Unfortunately, this isn't the case; one student's online distractions tend to distract others.
  7. The problem of student distraction existed long before there was Wi-Fi. The problem is rooted in human nature rather than in technology. Students will simply turn to other distractions if Wi-Fi is made inaccessible. Classroom distraction is a perennial problem that predates the introduction of Wi-Fi. But the scope of the problem is not the same as it was in Mendell's day. As many tech pundits have observed, Silicon Valley is investing vast sums of capital in "hijacking" our attention. Unfortunately, unregulated Wi-Fi on campus only facilitates that hijacking. To even out the competition for our student's attention, faculty need to be given technologies that mitigate Silicon Valley's powers.
  8. The free dissemination of information is central to the university mission. Turning off Wi-Fi directly flouts that mission. It is true that universities are in the business of disseminating knowledge and that Wi-Fi plays an important role in forwarding that mission. At the same time, however, educators have an abiding interest not only in teaching students how to focus and pay attention but also in creating environments that are at a remove from the interruptions that get in the way of sustained thought. Many of the traditional technologies and architectures of the university forward this latter mission including the book, the library, the carrel, and the walls of the brick and mortar classroom that by design keep students and teachers at a remove from outside distractions. Wi-Fi seriously compromises the intent that is embedded in those technologies.

Of course, we need Wi-Fi on campus. It is central to the higher education's mission. But to presume that it shouldn't be regulated in the classroom, and to dismiss technological means of facilitating that regulation, contravenes other missions that are equally important to university life. Moreover, in dismissing the problem, IT departments overlook the many ways that Wi-Fi, in concert with the business imperatives of Silicon Valley, is subverting students' attention in unprecedented and worrisome ways. For these reasons, we should weigh more carefully arguments for disabling Wi-Fi in classrooms. Nothing less than the minds of our students are at stake.

Luke Fernandez is a visiting professor in the School of Computing at Weber State University.

© 2018 Luke Fernandez.