BYOD: Does anyone have a right to WiFi in a school setting?

Free speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom to bear arms. Free access to your school’s WiFi network. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

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Until the tech department changes the passwords, that is.

At my school, students had grown used to a very generous Bring Your Own Device atmosphere that had built up over several years. I suppose most students had their phones on the school network and I was starting to see a sprinkling of individually-owned iPad minis, other tablets, and the occasional PC laptop appear in class. This was accomplished by having a Guest network available through the school and most if not all students had the user name and password that the technology department had freely circulated for their use.

But how were they using this access? According to a recent conversation with our tech department folks, the vast majority of traffic on the school-provided WiFi was to YouTube and Facebook. The assumption, and probably an accurate one, is that most of the bandwidth being slurped up by the BYOD crowd was for non-academic purposes. So the tech department decided to do something about it. Their first step was to change the Guest network login username and password and to not give it out to students.

But those crazy kids knew a couple of the other WiFi network passwords too, either through divine intervention or the fact that they were friends with the student tech interns over the past few years. The technology staff report walking into classrooms and seeing some of the not-so-secure network passwords scribbled on teacher whiteboards. See where this is going? If you are a network admin, you do.

If you are a network admin or keep an eye on such things, you know that network (IP) addresses for computers consist of 4 numbers (ex: 192.255.11.3) where the last two numbers are the subnet (11) and the individual device (3). It turns out that each subnet can only dish out 255 addresses, for some arcane reason. This limits the number of devices that can be on one subnet to no more than 255, and usually less.

Now when all of our BYOD devices, which was pretty much every cell phone in the building, hopped on the same WiFi network, what do you suppose happened? Thats right, we ran out of addresses. Now it was personal because the network that everyone had hopped on was one that all my Macs and iPads were on, because Apple stuff like AirPlay and Bonjour loves to be on the same subnet. But having one subnet means only 250 or so devices, and now every kid in the building was snagging those IP addresses. Major network crash, right in the middle of some test prep that my students were trying to do on the Macs. Not pretty.

Our response? Change all the passwords. Quite logical, actually. Now only school-owned devices can connect to the school’s WiFi network. There seem to be no more connection problems and the speed of the network seems faster, but that could be my imagination.

Was this the right call, kicking every BYOD off of the school network? I’m not sure.

I totally understand why it happened the way it did and I get the argument about network connectivity as a limited resource. But if your students are like mine, and like the individual who drew the image above, access to WiFi ranks way up there on the list of basic needs. Lots of the YouTube traffic that I saw from my students was happening in the background as music that played while they worked on school-related stuff. Many teachers in the building report multiple instances of cell phones being used on a routine basis for academic purposes. Is it fair to now force students to use up their data plans for learning activities while school-provided WiFi lurks just out of reach? Is the local coffee shop now a more welcoming place to learn because they provide WiFi?

I think there are some positive aspects of BYOD, but right now we’re clunking around our implementation of it. How’s it work in your school? What solutions have you seen work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. pfeerick’s avatar

    I’m not in a school anymore, and I can’t remember how the network was structured. Why can’t the guest Internet/network users be on a separate subnet, so that a) they don’t suck up all the school computer IP addresses, and b) to isolate them from the school computers to prevent hacking and the like. If your wifi access points can host multiple SSIDs, you can have one SSID that is the *secure* school machine only network, and another which is the freely available public network.

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    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

      Peter,

      That has been our setup, as far as I know. Certainly the Guest network was a separate SSID from our staff and student networks. The issues that I wrote about arose once decisions were made to change the access password and deny easy access to the Guest channel.

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    2. fhulihee’s avatar

      I’m curious how you can have a BYOD program and not provide wifi? How can that possibly work? Our school has started a BYOD program and over the summer upgraded the wifi to two systems. There is one of the faculty and staff and we can have as many devices as we want on that system. The students have a completely separate system and each student is only allowed one device. We started school with this system in August and except for one instance of someone cutting our lines looking for copper, it has worked really well. I stream videos and have no problem doing that.

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      1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

        That is the big question, isn’t it? I invited our tech director to meet with our building leadership team to have that very conversation after Fall break. I’ll let you know how that conversation goes, and whether we go forward with any BYOD access at all.

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      2. Kaitlynn Arnholt’s avatar

        What an interesting story! I am a currently a student teacher in a masters degree program and have faced very different circumstances in my own school. We do not have a BYOD program established in our school and instead have a strict ban on cellphone. and other devices, at school. Teachers can choose to have students use their own tech in the classroom at their own discretion, but most teachers do not take advantage of this opportunity. We have learned a great deal about BYOD in our technology class, and I can understand both the pros and cons of this type of program.

        I am curious to learn more about how BYOD at your school was implemented and how the culture of school has changed due to BYOD. Overall do you think that both students and teachers have taken advantage of BYOD? At my school, students do not have access to the WiFi other than through the guest network. Even as a student teacher, I only have access through the guest network (which can sometimes honestly be a pain). On this guest network there is a significant amount of restrictions. However, when students log onto computers in the computer lab they can get onto youtube and tend to listen to inappropriate music from school. I am not sure how the system is setup and how the restrictions vary from one type of account to another. Now I might have to look into this!

        Thanks for the insightful post!

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        1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

          Kaitlynn,

          I’m not sure that we could really claim to have a BYOD program, as such. We mostly just have (had) a network that student devices could be on. Some students use it, but many don’t, especially now that it’s been disabled. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked with our technology staff about any vision for BYOD at our school. I hope to do that in the coming weeks. One thing is for sure, we have some choices to make about student devices on our networks. Thanks for the comment!

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        2. Jesse’s avatar

          Hello Chris,
          Thanks for this post. In one of my grad classes, we have been focusing much of our conversation around the BYOD issue weighing its pros and cons. We have not discussed specifically the issue of wifi / IP address shortages, however. I was completely unaware that wifi networks could only facilitate a finite number of users! Thanks for the education.

          Where I student teach—an adult alternative education center—there is a wifi network, but students are not given access to it. If they want to access the internet, there are computer labs they can utilize. However, with the onslaught of new smart phones, which seem to be surgically attached to the hand of every one of my students, my students are able to access the internet whenever they want to regardless of not being able to utilize the wifi. And with so many phone packages boasting infinite data, there is little incentive for many of my students to responsibly manage their web surfing.

          As you might guess, cell phones have become an ever-present issue in terms of classroom management. Do you have any advice on how to either manage phones in the classroom or utilize them for academic purposes?

          Best,
          Jesse

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          1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

            Jesse,

            We use phones a lot in my classes, not as part of “lesson plans” but as a natural outgrowth of the class. They are the easiest way for students to take pictures and videos from labs that we do. Those pics and vids end up in their blog posts/lab reports and make the blogs really come to life. The world is multimedia these days and for most students, multimedia means access to their phone. I’ve even seen some students use Snapchat as a great way to take and label lab photos. Management is an issue, of course, but if we train students to deal with their digital distractions phones can still be really useful devices. Just last week some biology classes were following a Twitter hashtag in class and that would have been a lot more cumbersome to do if they didn’t have their own devices to access Twitter with. I say let them bring their phones but give them good reasons to use them for academic purposes.

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          2. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

            Update 12/18/14: We had an excellent discussion at our last Building Leadership Team meeting with our technology coordinator. It turns out that we are all very much on the same page in terms of wanting to provide WiFi access to students while they are at school. Our big issue is actually a hardware issue, not a philosophical disagreement, which is what I was worried about initially. It turns out that our network hardware, while pretty robust, is many generations behind and lacks the kind of fine tuning that we would hope to see in a network that would allow students onboard. Basically our system is either all in or all out, depending on whether you have the password or not. So until we manage to scrape together a pretty sizable sum for a new controller, switches, and access points, we’ll have to limp along with the school-issued computer carts. Hopefully sometime in the near future we can install a newer system that will allow us to get more student devices connected so that we can begin to implement more mobile-based strategies without the fear of crashing the network.

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