Sunday, September 16, 2012

Putting the Why in the WiFi

Recently I was able to get some face time with students at one of our high schools during opening grade meetings to talk about WiFi and BYOD. The school WiFi was installed sometime last year, and from what I understand (I'm new to the district), the full school bandwidth was included in the WiFi capacity, the students were told it was available, and they started to sign in and use it. Though it was used for learning at times, various sources of information suggest that we were too often merely subsidizing the kids' phone plans, as they used the WiFi to access their social media and copious amounts of YouTube, which requires a huge amount of bandwidth. As the number of students signed on at a given moment reached upwards of 250, teachers, office staff, and students on desktops in labs and in the library found their own connectivity bogging down to the point where their machines would be rendered near useless. This was frustrating, and certainly counterproductive.

My message to the students was simple, and the same one I used to give every year in opening week meetings as principal. "School is fun and social, and full of many reasons to get up in the morning and attend, but you are here to learn. Learning is and must be number one." I also tied that to the real reason the WiFi was installed. Essentially:

"To give students and teachers instant access to research, fact-checking, information management, and collaboration tools in order to further develop responsible, independent, life-long learners ready for the 21st century!"

I talked briefly about the evolution in education, and how our providing the students access to WiFi is an important part of this. We then ran an experiment in the meeting. I switched my phone from Evernote (which I had been using to mirror my notes to projector up on to the screen) over to Speedtest, an app that measures available bandwidth. (Also at The students watched a bandwidth test run live on the screen and saw us getting 6.7 mg/s for download through the theatre access point. I then asked them to sign in to the school WiFi, turn off their sound, choose their favorite YouTube video, then hold their phone up when it started to load. When the first 12 students had their phones up I ran the test again. The students watched the needle lay on helplessly on its side for a moment, then slowly limp to less than .5 mg/s. "Now, imagine what happens if there are 25 of you on YouTube in the school, or 50, or more ..."

While we do have more than enough bandwidth to meet the educational needs of the school, it needs to be managed effectively. There are three parts to this, and the first two are items that have been addressed over the summer. First a "partition" will now divide Internet usage and guarantee the desktops will always have sufficient bandwidth. Second, more access points for the WiFi will spread the use and help prevent bottlenecks in the system. Third, and most importantly and the reason for my visit to the school, more thoughtful use by the educational community is required. Students need to understand what they do impacts everyone else's ability to use the system for learning. This means:

  • Limit "large package" downloads on the WiFi - no streaming music or video, please.
  • If you need to watch YouTube for an assignment, either keep the clip short, switch to 3G, or go to a desktop and turn down the resolution so it uses less bandwidth. (Bottom right - looks like a gear!)

We don't want to block sites (there is great learning on YouTube) and we don't want to place a limit on each device, as both of these run contrary to the new direction in education. We want to move away from the model of compliance and towards one of engagement, but this has to start by framing in the purpose. Responsibility needs to start with the "why".

I then touched on some of the "small package" programs and sites that, in my opinion, are perfect for a BYOD environment. The always expanding and improving Wikipedia is a great place to check facts and start a research project. Evernote is my favorite tool to keep and organize notes across devices and platforms. I also showed them this link, which will come in handy as our district embraces Project Based Learning: A show of hands also indicated fewer than five percent of the kids had used GoogleDocs to collaborate on a project, so we clearly have work to do.

What are our next steps? Our district usage policy is getting a refresh this year, as is the tech plan, and district budget. We are looking at systems from other districts to help support digital learning and co-exist with FOIPPA. I will be back to the school to spend time with the staff and then with students to support them with various BYOD resources. This is certainly an exciting time in education, and no one can predict with any certainty where we will go in the future. In the meantime, it sure is fun to help craft that direction, and I think helping students understand "why we have WiFi" is an important start.


  1. Great post!
    I am actually attending some PD later this week with teachers from various schools looking at bring IT to school (though I like the BYOD acronym) I'd love to share a link to your post with others (and I may have to run the speed test with my students).

    We are having similar growing pains with WiFi and technology - it seems like most people forget about bandwidth entirely, and see WiFi as "free internet" end of story.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Sarah. I used a similar strategy the year before in my own school as we did our BYOD rollout, and I was impressed with the way the students handled the responsibility to use the WiFi respectfully, once informed of its purpose and limitations. We had only 10mg/s overall (though a smaller school) with just 2mg/s to the wireless, so using it well was imperative. Reports back from the school I mentioned in this blog are very encouraging so far - no slow downs in the labs or teacher machines. Hopefully the students are also heeding the other piece of the message from my meetings not mentioned above: the more you show the teachers responsible use, the more the teachers will encourage your using the devices in your classes. So, please lay off the texting and Facebook. Good luck with your own IT projects. PJ