“Give it away, give it away, give it away now!”
We’re talking about wireless access today, with thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for pleading our case so succinctly. Wireless access at high schools needs to be freely, openly available. Here’s why.
1. Schools exist to help students learn, and learn how to learn.
… and increasingly, that learning requires—or at the very least makes use of—the Internet. From videos of science demonstrations to textbook websites, from email to social networking, from “just surfing” to last-minute instructions during a teacher absence, our students are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated world that asks them to be technologically savvy, and requires them to be able to manage multiple short- and long-term tasks. Even if you, Hansel, still keep your appointments in a Day Planner, spilling a little trail of paper-based reminders behind you wherever you go, that’s not how the rest of the world works now. Students do work—homework, reports, research—on laptops, and some students bring those machines to school in order to get additional work done. Then need to be connected to the Internet!
Why, as educators, would we stand in the way of that?
2. A closed network is futile.
Students who are unable to access the Internet via a computer may easily do so through a cellphone, and increasingly via dataphones such as the iPhone, the “Google phone” (HTC Nexus One), and the like. We’re not protecting them from Facebook, or instant messaging, or Twitter, or porn. We’re just making it harder for them to do the things that they do need to do.
The Zona Rosa Café, not far from my house, refuses to offer a wireless signal for its patrons. The owner states that he doesn’t want “that kind of café”—he wants one that’s more interactive, more social. He’s free to run his business as he wishes, of course, but you can guess what his clients, many of them students, do: they sit there typing away on their non-networked computers, or surfing the Internet anyway on their phones.
As educators with a progressive stance on the use of appropriate technology in a learning environment, why would we cripple our students with less-than-complete access? What does it say to our students when they can get a better Internet connection on their own cellphone than they can through an over-filtered school laptop?
We’re not protecting them from anything. We’re just making it inconvenient, and making ourselves look silly in the process.
3. The iPad is coming.
In the humble opinion of many of my fellow, tech-crazed, educators, we’re about to witness a revolution. Apple’s new iPad—available within a couple of months—promises to do to the the plastic, gray-scale Kindle what the iMac did to the PC, what the iPod did to the MP3 player, and what the iPhone did to the cellphone industry. It’s going to leverage people’s familiarity with the power, convenience, and now-familiar multi-touch interface of the iPhone so that the iPad becomes the most successful media player on the planet. Publishers are lining up to deliver iPad customized content, including newspapers (hoping desperately for something, anything that will save their failing industry), and publishers of textbooks (overpriced, and increasingly just downloaded illegally via Bittorrent by cash-poor but tech-savvy college students). Educational materials are a natural for the iPad, and at least one teacher I know of has both a) received a grant to purchase three of them for his classroom, and b) begun the process of developing his own educational materials, to be delivered on the iPad.
Although some models of the iPad are going to have 3G capability, the lower-priced versions (hello, Education Market) are going to have network access only via wireless Internet. Students who want to take advantage of these devices are going to need access to networks, and schools should have a responsibility to provide it, unfettered and unfiltered. (One of my colleagues, using a filtered laptop to search for the lyrics to an old Bob Dylan song, had his search refused by overly-protective software; the text “It Ain’t Me, Babe” contained a dangerous, porn-related keyword.)
So there you have it.
The tech guys at my school work harder than anybody I know to configure the network, deliver computers, assist teachers, and foster the use of technology at my school. They are knowledgeable (not surprising), social (for IT guys!), friendly (really!), and never fail to come through, whether it’s diagnosing a network problem in the middle of class or answering their work phone even when out sick for the day. But I’ve come to believe that they’ve got better things to do than spend their day re-doing proxies and managing MAC address whitelists.
Will there be problems with opening up the network? Absolutely. Students will have to learn how to behave responsibly on the network at school, and sysadmins will need to keep an eye on use (and potential misuse) of the network, as they always do. But opening up the network puts the responsibility for using it wisely squarely on the shoulders of the students—where it should be—rather than on overly twitchy content filters.
Most importantly, though, it gives students the freedom and the power to become more active participants in their own learning.
And that’s what school is all about.