wifi

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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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