By Paul Barrette, CIO Advisor
Lately, I've seen an increasingly popular meme on Twitter and edtech blogs echoing the same call to action; “If Starbucks and McDonald’s have the infrastructure to offer open WiFi access, why can’t schools?” This is a surprisingly glib and uninformed stance to take by anyone who claims to have educational technology expertise or experience. While I’m a strong proponent and advocate for open WiFi access for staff and students, school environments are not the same as coffee shops and fast food restaurants and it’s disingenuous to continue to make the comparison. Frankly, it’s just not that simple and I’m concerned about the messages being sent by some some of the edtech Twitterati.
Let’s start with the most glaringly obvious difference between Starbucks and a K12 school; If Starbucks needs to upgrade its infrastructure or purchase new network hardware to facilitate offering WiFi access to its customers, it has the ability to raise revenue to do so. It's a for-profit enterprise. It can add a few cents to the cost of a cup of coffee to cover costs without anyone blinking an eye. This is not the case with most public schools; they are unable (or prevented by law) from raising their own revenue. Yes, some schools are able to take advantage of Priority 2 E-Rate funds to improve their internal network infrastructure, but lots of schools do not come close enough to the poverty threshold (thank goodness) to make it even worth applying. Yes, parent and booster organizations can do some fundraising to help offset costs, but that is outside of the purview of the school. That means it’s up to the traditional yearly budget process, possibly capital improvement funds or a bond, to compete for the necessary funding for infrastructure upgrades. It’s well worth the effort to advocate for funds through this process, but it is neither as quick nor as simple as raising the prices of a frappucino.
Next, think about the amount of internet bandwidth necessary to support the users and their multiple devices utilizing the WiFi network. The typical coffee shop or fast food restaurant only needs to support a fraction of the concurrent users that a public school needs to consider (staff, students and visitors). Currently, some network vendors recommend planning for at least three connected devices per user. In a small high school of 700 students and 80 staff members, that means you need to have enough internet bandwidth to support 2,340 devices! You can look at packet and bandwidth shaping options, but these appliances tend to be very expensive and often beyond the expertise of school technology staff to install and configure. All the additional devices connected to the WiFi network also means that you need to plan for adequate internal network bandwidth. This may mean upgrading old Cat5 wiring to Cat5e/Cat6, installing or upgrading fiber optic backbones between network closets, upgrading existing switches to support PoE and gigabit speeds, and increasing switch port counts to accommodate the additional number of access points necessary to support the number of staff and student devices.
Let’s also think about the physical layout of a Starbucks or McDonald’s compared to that of a school. For the most part, the dining/seating area is fairly wide open with few (if any) walls or barriers to consider. All you need to think about is having enough access point density to support the maximum number of users. In a school, you have lots of concrete walls to consider when deploying access points, as well as possibly multiple floors and rows of metal lockers (i.e., giant WiFi signal reflectors) lining the hallways. This means that you may need to install more access points to effectively cover the physical area and provide the density to adequately support staff and students. You also need to consider that some spaces are multi-use (the infamous “cafetorinasium”) and you need to deploy enough access points in the proper density to support the maximum number of users that may use that space at any one time.
Consider also that the usage of a school network is very different than the WiFi network use at a coffee shop or restaurant. In a school, there are a wide variety of types of users that require different levels of access to resources on the network. Administrative staff members need access to student information systems, online IEP systems, financial systems, and human resource systems. Teachers need access to online gradebooks, student information system portals, and a wide array of educational resources (including YouTube). Students need to have access to all their learning resources and tools, while still being filtered according to district or school policy, even when using their own devices. All of this requires careful planning, proper network design, capable network equipment (from wireless access point, to switch, to router, to firewall, to content filter), and lots of discussion with various stakeholders about their needs and what the WiFi network should provide. As you can imagine, it can take time and lots of testing to get everything configured and working properly. Many times, the priority for schools is to get their “internal” WiFi network up and running first and then work on their open/guest/BYOD networks.
Quality of WiFi access being offered is also a key consideration in the planning process for schools. Not to be picky, but I don’t find that the quality of access that I get at a coffee shop or local restaurant to be all that great. I utilize Gmail and Google Docs quite a bit (including to write this blog post offline on a flight home from vacation) and I’m often disconnected multiple times while working at any of my favorite coffee/pastry chain locations. I also find, depending upon how many people are online at once, the effective speed of the WiFi connection to be frustratingly slow. In addition, during my aforementioned vacation, my family and I attempted to utilize the WiFi access provided to registered guests at a brand-new Disney resort. All of us were using different devices (a Chromebook, a Nexus 7 tablet, a Kindle Fire, and a Nintendo 3DS) and we all had numerous issues with the reliability and performance of the connectivity. My wife became so frustrated that she stopped trying midway into our week long stay. So, if even Disney with all its resources struggles to get this right, why can’t we cut K12 schools a little slack and be patient while the planning and design process is in the works?
Lastly, districts and schools may need to consider updating their policies prior to offering open WiFi access to staff, teachers and students. What are the district’s responsibilities and liability if there are issues with how staff and students utilize the WiFi network with their own devices? What are the district’s responsibilities and capabilities to provide support? Should the district consider implementing some sort of network access control (NAC) solution to ensure that staff and students that unknowingly bring in infected or compromised devices don’t unintentionally cause problems for other users outside the district or school network? I would surmise that Starbucks and McDonald’s have much larger legal budgets than most K12 public school districts, so they can be less concerned with a legal issue depleting a budgetary line item or diverting resources from more crucial areas.
All of this being said, I firmly believe that schools absolutely should offer open/guest/BYOD WiFi access to staff, teachers and students. Connectivity and ubiquitous access to information are becoming the norm in our society and I do not think that schools should use any of the challenges listed above as excuses to not have a plan in place. We’re in the beginning stages of that plan in my own district and have had some success, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s all continue to make the case for the importance of open WiFi access for teachers and students to the other decision and policy makers in our districts, schools, towns and cities. Let’s work together to advocate for the necessary resources for K12 schools to offer WiFi access to all members of the school community. Let’s make the time to talk with our colleagues that may still be harboring concerns or putting up roadblocks within their own districts. Let’s also stop making it seem that schools (or their technology staff) are inept because Starbucks is able to offer enough WiFi access for their customers to check their email or do some online shopping while sipping their triple lattes.