Friday, 1 June 2012

What’s Wrong With WiFi? Dollars and Sense

Ubiquitous internet access has transformed the way humans think and interact in unprecedented ways. As a global population, we are becoming a part of a worldwide cybernetic intelligence as the digital technology industry catalyzes the fastest leap in planetary evolution ever witnessed by humanity. In effect, we all now live inside a giant virtual library, in which almost any bit of information may be accessed by almost anyone, almost anytime, providing a potential for human learning never experienced before.

So what’s wrong with KPR’s pervasive WiFi plan? Isn’t wireless computer access already saturating our environment? Shouldn’t our schools be among the places where such access is easiest to come by?

As is the case with most KPR plans, this one leaves much to be desired when it comes to both dollars and sense.

KPR’s budgets show that the province of Ontario provides about half a million dollars per year for classroom technology. In the past four years, KPR has spent about $7 million on this line item, including a whopping $2.2 million for the purchase and installation of commercial-grade Meru routers, which go for more $1000 each, up to twenty of which might be in a single school. 

KPR also bought class sets of “netbook” computers complete with carts to move them from room to room. Installing a point-source, low-power, household-style router on each cart would have cost $100 a shot – and done the same job sending signals to the netbooks as do the pervasive, high-power routers currently hidden behind ceiling tiles at every KPR school.

This judicious system of turning WiFi signals on only at the time and place of immediate use would have cost a total of $20,000 if every KPR school had two of them – the same price paid by the board for setting up a single school with high-power routers! Indeed, the annual $80,000 maintenance cost of the Meru routers is far higher than the total purchase cost of point-source routers would have been.

Yes, you read that right. KPR could have spent $20,000 making point-source WiFi available in every school. Instead they spent $2 million to flood schools with WiFi radiation from top to bottom, all day long, all year long, need it or not.

Let’s compare the availability of WiFi with hot water in your home. For decades every household had a large hot water tank, a reservoir of heated water at the ready. Eventually somebody figured out it would be ten times more energy-efficient if we just heated the water up when and where we needed it with a tankless, “on-demand” heater – now the first choice of economically-minded homeowners and builders.

While this same “on demand” principle is being used to save energy and money in industrial design across the board, KPR trustees and administrators continues to operate with out-of-date thinking even as they tell us (and themselves) that they’re leaping ahead into the future.

The total technology plan KPR is currently pursuing is expected to cost $13 million, though the board has been especially shy about revealing the details. It doesn’t take a genius to see that KPR can’t actually afford the plan. Indeed, KPR’s long-term debt has been ballooning since Rusty Hick was hired as Director – from $67 million in 2009 to $73 million in 2010 to a whopping $93 million last year – with technology expenses playing a significant part.

Abraham: making magic with $$$
In April 2010, Clarington trustee Cathy Abraham showed the poor judgment for which KPR trustees are rapidly becoming known in participating in a publicly available interview with Robert Martellacci, the head of a private digital technology company. The interview, available here, demonstrates how closely KPR is linked to the behind-the-scenes push to stimulate the corporate economy by shipping as much public money as possible into it. In the podcast, Abraham made her now-famous admission that trustees would have to “make some magic happen during the budget process” to facilitate the massive technology expenditures.

Abraham stated in no uncertain terms that one of the primary motivations for installing pervasive wireless systems is to “allow students to use the technology they already have.” Martellacci responded by mentioning that Research in Motion was planning to double their Blackberry sales to the educational market. Abraham remarked how wonderful it would be if students could simply bring their laptops to school and look up websites during lessons – an opinion strongly suggesting that she has never actually tried to manage a classroom herself. She expressed her confidence that “this is the way of teaching for the future,” and concluded the interview by claiming that in pushing WiFi, trustees are really just responding to students who want to use their hand-held devices in the classroom.

Although Abraham claimed in the interview that KPR’s brave leap into the world of WiFi was independent of Queen’s Park, Premier McGuinty’s comments just a few months later suggest otherwise. McGuinty managed to anger parents by suggesting that cell phones be allowed in classrooms, as reported by the Toronto Star. A poll on the Star’s website the day after McGuinty’s remarks revealed that 93% of respondents thought it a bad idea – for all the obvious reasons. “There’s nothing positive about cell phones or any distractions in the classroom environment,” observed one citizen. A parent working in the technology field wrote that “these devices disconnect us from the spontaneity of human existence.” 

A more recent poll, taken by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association less than a year after Abraham’s comments, showed that 72% of students in fact didn’t think cell phones should be part of the classroom environment, as reported here.

Kawartha Safe Technology Initiative members believe that the “hidden agenda” behind pervasive WiFi is simply to let school boards off the hook of providing computers at all, eventually obliging all parents to buy their kids laptops and iPhones to take to school. Not only does such a plan exacerbate the differences between upper-class and lower-class children (which public schools were designed to minimize), but also creates new security issues as kids with expensive new devices become targets of theft and violence. Last month, Toronto police chief Bill Blair discussed the problem of cellphone theft at schools, as reported in the Star.

Making matters worse, it’s obvious that pervasive WiFi and hand-held devices will present an impossible management problem for teachers. KSTI rightly argues that this scenario would create “limitless opportunities for cyberbullying, misuse of cell phone cameras, and viewing of pornography.” A CBC documentary on the negative psychological effects of such activities was aired this past winter, hosted by Canadian theatre, literary and media icon Ann-Marie MacDonald. You can watch it here.

Cooke: WiFi is more important than PCVS
Abraham’s fellow Clarington-area trustee and techno-cheerleader Steven Cooke in a frightfully amateurish campaign video posted to YouTube during the last election managed to demonstrate exactly why he shouldn’t have been elected. Luckily for him (and painfully for us), only one other person besides he and Abraham sought the positions, and only one-third of the electorate showed up to vote (as discussed in the post "Why Peterborough Gets Shafted by KPR"). 

Cooke, barely able to enunciate his own “teleprompter” speech, claims that digital technology is “one of the key elements to improving student engagement and success.” He boasts about the $13 million plan, expressing the naive belief that because of its technology investment, KPR will soon be producing the best students and teachers in Ontario. Cooke, who was later removed from the Board for failing to file his campaign finances (but unfortunately was reinstated), appears, like Abraham, to have zero experience in the classroom.

As a post-secondary teacher myself, I noticed more and more students bringing laptops to class after WiFi was installed on my campus. I also noticed that the more students used laptops, the worse their grades got, and the more difficult it became to engender productive classroom discussion.

So I tried an experiment. I banned all electronic devices from my classroom. Contradicting Cooke’s groundless claims, struggling students who had been particularly dependent on laptops instantly improved their grades and level of engagement. Last year I wrote the electronic device ban right into the syllabus. The result? We had the best educational outcomes and most energetic classroom discussions in the six years I’ve been teaching the course.

I’m talking about literature here – one of the areas for which one might think instant classroom access to the internet would be most beneficial. I can only imagine how KPR’s Phys. Ed. teachers feel about being given laptops and WiFi instead of sports equipment – not to mention those teaching woodshop, dance, visual arts, music, drama, French, or any other subject in which accessing information is a low priority compared with actually practicing the tasks at hand while interacting with fellow students or hands-on tools.

Can you imagine what our schools would be like if KPR’s Board of Trustees were staffed by accomplished, retired teachers instead of untrained corporate cheerleaders going on online spending sprees with public money, convinced of their own pedagogical genius?

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