Classrooms With Wi-Fi

A Challenge for Teacher Control and a Revolution in Learning

Wi-fi technologies will soon permeate classrooms in schools and colleges just as they have started to enter business conference rooms. When they do, they will raise issues of stewardship and control for teachers. How can a teacher assert the necessary and traditional control over classroom proceedings to remain effective? How can a teacher retain focus and discipline in the classroom when students multitask with ease? Can the technologies be used for educational benefits, e.g., through augmenting subject matter with instant research or through greater participation? This article will try to address some of the behavioral issues that emerge when Wi-Fi access becomes commonplace in the classroom.

Graduate seminar rooms and lecture halls are equipped, or can be readily furnished, with projectors, screens and whiteboards, while phone lines typically link these rooms to the outside world, both for voice and dial-up data services. However, Wi-Fi in such settings is new and growing, and the behaviors of business people in these settings offer insights into what can be expected in the classroom. Already, a number of colleges have some form of wireless connectivity on campus, including Dartmouth College and Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. In secondary education, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative is introducing laptops for all 17,000 of the state's seventh-graders as an experiment this fall. In addition, many other school districts nationwide are implementing smaller wireless programs.

As laptop use spreads among students, its use will extend outside of the classroom and into places such as bookstore cafes, lounges and homes. The technologies clearly represent an intervention in the classroom and a pedagogical challenge. Classroom etiquette may change; and learning potential may increase through healthy, intraclassroom, nondisruptive communications, as well as through the use of the Internet's timely, global resources.

Blending of Revolutions in the Classroom

About seven years ago I witnessed the combined wireless and portable Internet revolutions. Auctions of PCS (personal communications services) frequency by the Federal Communications Commission had launched the digital wireless voice revolution, and the Mosaic browser had launched the Internet revolution. I concluded that student and teacher behavior in Wi-Fi-enhanced classrooms would materially change, because there would be new options for interaction between:

  • Students among themselves;
  • Students with their teachers;
  • Students with outsiders; and
  • Students and teachers with the Internet.

    These new options would prove to be beneficial to the class at times and disadvantageous to the class at other times. Regardless, I concluded that the presence of people outside of the classroom and the variety of knowledge on the Internet would inevitably permeate the classroom even while in session.

    The principal argument of this paper is that the c'existence and interworking of several factors in the classroom's limited space is central to the understanding of new behaviors, not any technologies per se. The 'presence in a context,' or agglomeration, principally determines behavioral change. Therefore, you have to take into account the availability of laptops in critical numbers, their ability to network with each other and the Internet, and their convenient wireless use. Also, you have to consider the topology of the room and the interplay of these technologies with the existing technologies, such as a projector or whiteboard.

    In classrooms today, the whiteboard and the projector live an uneasy c'existence. When the two are on the same wall, and the projection screen has to move up before the whiteboard can be used, a clumsy procedure results. Moving the projector screen to the side or having the whiteboard moved to other walls can redress this issue. However, when both the projection screen and the whiteboard are needed, the focus of the room shifts from wall to screen and vice versa. This means students' chairs turn and the educator's position of control is compromised.

    Then, there are the issues of control and focus due to the relative placement of the whiteboard and projector when many participants have laptops wirelessly connected to the Internet and intranet. The students are therefore linked to the outside world even as they participate in class. Unlike whispering or passing paper notes, the students can nondisruptively communicate with each other through the access point, as well as in a peer-to-peer manner.

    In the future, when the projector is an element on the wireless network, anyone in the classroom can control the projected contents wirelessly, mediated through a suitable user interface available for each participant, but controlled in a 'master' fashion by the educator. The presence of laptops and Wi-Fi thus creates an extremely open environment thereby exacerbating the problem of an educator's control. In addition to issues of student discipline and attentiveness, the increasing use of the projector alongside the whiteboard in their varying topologies already challenges a teacher's control. This challenge to control is exacerbated by the presence wirelessly connected laptops.

    Classroom Dynamics With Wireless Internet

    Laptops will enter classrooms as substitutes for traditional notebook folders, whether or not they have any other educational benefit, and whether or not they are connected to the Internet. However, when connected, there will be an electronic dialogue in class among students and with the outside world even as the teacher is talking. The normal 'one-to-many' method of any teacher will now be augmented and overlaid by numerous one-to-many electronic conversations, messages and alerts from the outside.

    Browsing, playing computer games, exchanging e-mail and Internet messaging might substitute for doodling. Such exchanges may not be easily controlled or stopped by a teacher in the interest of better classroom participation. It would look normal enough, no more or less than note taking. Students paying attention in class would be indistinguishable from those who are not, though the body language will remain the same. Several novel issues arise as a result:

  • Should eye contact remain as important in this new environment?
  • Should laptops be allowed during exams and quizzes?
  • Do Wi-Fi-enhanced classrooms create a new teaching format?
  • D'es a question asked electronically have lower priority than a student's raised hand?
  • What happens to participation when note taking is less transcribing what is presented and more like annotation?
  • How d'es the classroom dynamic change when what is on the board is also simultaneously on students' screens?

    Controlling Classroom Content and Agenda

    Just what the new protocols for control and discipline will be is difficult to predict. Some possibilities include:

  • No laptops allowed in the room. The laptop as a substitute for a notebook folder will be difficult to prohibit. Calculators were once prohibited in the belief that their use would impair students' computational abilities.
  • Laptops allowed for taking notes, for local content, but no access to the Internet (or enterprise LAN) in the classroom. This too would be difficult to implement given that Wi-Fi functionalities will be embedded in laptops, and PC cards for mobile data services will either be embedded or have small form factors.
  • Laptops allowed, access to enterprise LAN and the Internet permitted, and, with the teacher's permission, can be used to augment learning. The contents from the Internet may be shared with the group or projected for discussion. This will be the norm, I suspect, and some kind of honor code will prevail so that its use will be judicious and respectful of others.

    Apart from the do's and don'ts in a classroom, which are the prerogatives of the teacher, it is possible to have a limited technical solution to the problem of metering and regulating access to outside content during class. A 'master' computer belonging to the teacher can control the access point (AP) that is feeding the classroom. At different times during the class, the AP may be 'opened' to various degrees by the teacher. For example, the teacher may allow 'one-to-many' access - only the instructor can send information to the class through the AP. Such a solution may be implemented through specialized or proprietary APs specifically designed for classrooms.

    On occasions, when research requires access to the Internet for each student, the teacher may switch the AP to an 'Open' or 'Internet' mode. Once the research is done, say after 15 minutes, the teacher can switch off the Internet connection. This may be reasonable; yet it may not be enforceable. This is because the coverage from mobile carriers could encompass classrooms, and any student who wishes may access the Internet regardless of the teacher's controls. Control over Internet access would therefore have to be exercised through subscription management by parents.

    Laptops can be used for note taking, but unlike traditional notebooks, they open vertically. Such open flaps of laptop screens have the potential of becoming a mild irritant in the classroom. Whereas open laptop screens on the same side of the table are collaborative, when across the table they can be unintentionally rude. Laptops also allow students to hide behind the open screen and avoid teacher eye contact. Emerging etiquette may require that only screens of a certain size be appropriate for classrooms or meetings, or that they be folded down sufficiently. This raises all kinds of product design and ergonomics issues - readability, footprint or projection on the table, space needed per person, body posture, etc. To my knowledge, no notebook computer opens on the side of the keyboard, functioning as a true notebook. Tablet PCs may offset this limitation, but their acceptability remains to be established.


    Wi-Fi technologies have flooded classrooms with no sign of letting up. They pose challenges to teachers' classroom objectives, require new etiquette and protocols for control, and have the potential to enhance learning. Conducting trials in actual classrooms appears to be the best way to learn how behavior will be shaped. Toward this end, projects such as ActiveClass ( at the University of California, San Diego may help. But many more studies with specific behavioral and ergonomic objectives are necessary; particularly those focused on the interplay of the technologies with their context.

    Phones, smart phones and connected PDAs have already rendered the classroom permeable to outside interruptions. Connected laptops or notebook computers, however, qualitatively change the environment since they are legitimate tools for the classroom. Simpler protocols, such as requiring students to turn off their phones or set them to vibrate mode, are no longer sufficient. When integrated with projectors, whiteboards and connectivity, laptops can be considered a disruptive technology.

    Such disruption can be in the service of superior learning. But the teacher must first learn to harness them, in addition to controlling them, for extracting benefits. This also needs to be determined through well-defined trials. If such disruptive technologies do indeed enhance learning, its absence in certain schools represents deprivation, and it potentially adds to the digital divide. The Maine schools solved the problem of iniquitous access by giving all middle school students a state-issued laptop. But this might well be only an interim solution.

    More likely, schools will be permanently Wi-Fi enabled as a campus and students will have a choice in their use of laptops. Such a choice of laptops purchased as part of school supplies is the more likely future, and such choices are more of the 'American Way' than the Maine solution. After all, the laptop is a personal utility terminal outside of the classroom. Just as one may perceive the classroom boundaries to have been breached, it is also now possible to say that learning opportunities have expanded beyond the classroom to include any small conference table where students can gather and collaboratively do research and work.

    It's now possible for a student to be sick at home, while still being able to participate in class. Not merely by teleconferencing or videoconferencing, which is stilted and can be disruptive, but by merely linking into the projector and camera in the classroom from anywhere in the world. This represents a kind of ad hoc, online, distance learning, except that instead of the teacher's presence radiating out to classrooms across geography, the student zooms into the classroom. Such a classroom is potentially even more 'open' than what Wi-Fi achieves inside the class. It is not clear when the effectiveness of a teacher breaks down, and when learning impaired options for instructional design are as wide open as this. Determining such limits to openness is also an area for future research. Until the impact from these new technologies stabilizes, the teacher needs to draw the line at what is permissible, no matter what is possible.

  • This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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