Forum Friday – The WiFi Boogeyman!

Each Friday I like to pull a particularly note-worthy resource or discussion from the forum and showcase it on the main blog. This week brings an interesting discussion started just last week and has already generated nearly a dozen replies. All of them quite well thought out and adding to the complexity of unsecured wireless Internet access that bleeds over from homes into school buildings.

The trouble with open WiFi access at schools is students having access to potentially unfiltered Internet that the schools are required to provide. On the other hand, students coming to school with their own mobile computing platform (cell phone, PDA, etc.) means that schools can tap into a resource for learning that they didn’t have to pay for. Rick started the whole conversation off with a post from an IT list serv that he follows:

There has been an interesting thread from the VT IT List serve that some of you may be interested in reviewing. Lots of situations are being discussed based on the fact that students with all the new wireless technology are easily able to by pass all filters by simply tapping into a neighbor’s wireless access point.

This link should take you to the first message in the thread and you can just click on from there.

Unsecured Wireless in Nearby Homes

AndyAK then went on to point out that students can do a lot of damage even without access to unsecured Internet.

One of the high schools in our district recently had a student run a program to ferret the local admin password on a student machine which then allowed him to remote to a teacher workstation (same admin pw….bad idea) and install a keystroke logger. The whole thing grew a bit and resulted in an an arrest of a student before it was over. He now has a Group Policy item that restricts executables that don’t reside on the C: drive (and students generally cannot place files on the hard drive) to make this more difficult.

Rick replied with what I think are the sentiments of any great educator. He basically said that kids are kids, and even the best of them will still try to test their boundaries, especially high schoolers. However, Rick pointed out that with the proper motivation and encouragement most students will make productive choices about their use of technology, even with access to an unfettered wireless signal. Falconphysics then added a nice dose of realism:

Unfortunately it is really impossible to have students watched by an adult all the time they’re on a computer at school. No matter how diligent you are if you have a classroom full of kids on the internet there will always be the possibility that one or more are doing things they shouldn’t for at least a part of the time.

This of course, all leads me to my feelings on the matter. Should schools be afraid of unchecked wireless Internet access near their campus. Sure, for those few students that are going to break the rules no matter what. They’ll be the ones using the WiFi to access pornography, profane sites, and all manner of sites they shouldn’t be on at school. However, the vast majority of students might enjoy being able to access sites for research that might be blocked by the school and/or communicate with other students and classrooms on sites that have to be officially blocked by the school in order to “toe the line” and keep their federal funding.

So the question is, if the school can’t control it, should it technically be allowed in the classroom? Or does a school have to attempt to provide a completely controlled environment at all times, even at the lose of potential learning opportunities? If businesses in the “real world” are providing free wide open WiFi, why can’t a school mimic the real world, as we are so often asked to do, with the proper guidance and supervision of trained educators?

Tough questions to be sure, and no doubt the reason why this topic has proved so popular on the forum.


  1. Hi Ben,
    Great post. Lots of good questions, but I think the main point is that if all we do is worry about filtering and blocking, and ignore the ethical and media literacy aspects of bringing technology into our schools, we will never get to the point where students are independent and can make appropriate choices for themselves.

  2. I’m in agreement with Tim…perhaps completely 8>). I think we need to do enough to keep students from casually and accidently bumping into content that they shouldn’t, but that the responsibility is still to teach, and for the students to act appropriately.

    A more general question…..not just on technology issues……when a student misbehaves do you feel that your administrators generally lay responsibility on the student? Or on the teacher for not managing the class correctly. I’ve seen both happen, and am glad to be where I am these days.

  3. Hmmm,
    Part of the problem is that the “filtering and blocking” are the strings attached to the funds to make it all happen. Life is full of good and bad choices. I know I have made a lot of bad choices in my life and anyone who says otherwise about their own life is either lying or guilty of living an a fantasy world (or just down right afraid of taking risks).
    Living in a world where there is no Google or any other contact with the real world is not productive in terms of learning those choices because there are no choices to make. Again, it is closely akin to book banning which is an afront to our way of life. (Well, at least when I grew up.)
    But, if we must filter to make it all happen, we filter and we spend our time dealing with those who are determined to see what we are filtering.
    BTW, our filter blocks a lot of .org sites because some of them can be downright raunchy. Anyone can buy a .org

  4. Tim:
    You make a great point. It’s not enough to have a conversation like this independent of the social and learning aspects, then it really is a moot point. You can block, filter, and otherwise shutdown resources all you want, but if you ignore the educational ramifications it produces, then you’re walking down a very dark path indeed.

    That’s a really loaded question 🙂 There’s definitely responsibility to be taken by both the teacher and the administrator, but ultimately it’s the student’s responsibility once they encounter said “illicit” materials. We are responsible for providing the tools to help them cope with content that’s inapproriate, but they (students) need to make the choice to use the tools we’ve provided them effectively.

    Quite sad that so many .org sites are rather questionable, eh? Especially since the idea behind .org was to create a place for non-profit organizations. Perhaps that’s why other cling onto them, to generate misdirected traffic.

  5. And the next level will be the iPhone type computer/phones which will really put “control” completely out of the hands of the powers that be- unfiltered wireless all the time. We really need to start building up students to make good and safe choices otherwise you get the over protected child gone to college scenario. After making no decisions and having no say chaos ensues.

    There’s got to be a balance and while filtering is required for funds the level of filtering is variable.

  6. Tom:
    Dang, I didn’t even think about the next evolution of mobile phones. From my perspective data on my cellphone is still clunky, and expensive, but you’re right. Once the iPhone comes out and subsequent mobile phones that handle the Internet as well as tablet or laptop PCs, schools really will be “in the fire” so to speak if they aren’t prepared.

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