The topic of easy-to-use, reliable wireless access to the internet came to the fore today, so I thought I should write about it. I heard from a number of people on our Yammer social network that they believed that our institution’s wireless service was difficult to connect to and only available in scattered areas around the campus. That this appeared to be the opinion of the majority (with some exceptions) caused me considerable concern, as in my opinion, student wireless access should be considered priority infrastructure for any self-respecting further/higher education organisation.
From a teaching and learning point of view, campus-wide internet access – or even access that targets social and learning spaces such as refectories, libraries, lecture rooms and labs – is what truly blends together online and face-to-face learning. It means that while they’re on campus, a student can access their online learning just by turning on their netbook or iPhone. They can contribute to class online discussions while eating lunch or access their readings before class, using the technology they already have with them: their laptop, netbook, or other wi-fi capable mobile device.
Some of you may be thinking “can’t students just go use a computer lab?” To some extent, they can. However, most students don’t choose a library or computer lab as their preferred environment for group projects or study groups unless they’re forced to. In most of those locations, there are restrictions on noise levels, food, drink, physical access, and software installation/configuration. If students can get together at a campus cafe or in a refectory to work together, they will. By way of example: every day the refectory at my university is full of students working together, because that is their preferred space to do so.
But they can’t get internet access there – not without an apparent struggle. I work in an office just above the refectory, and one of my colleagues (in the same office) reports that there’s no signal. Even if they can get a signal, the process of actually logging in and getting network access is difficult or impossible for the apparent majority.
Then, of course, there are all the affordances of the internet that could be brought into learning situations. Students can look up definitions or supporting materials in lectures, using a wiki to collaboratively create lecture notes, or blogging an experiment or other learning experience, live from a student lab.
For mobile learning – and even for flexible learning – at any educational institution, equipping formal and informal learning spaces (such as social spaces) with fundamental enabling technologies like wireless internet access has to be at the top of the priority list. It even makes sense from a budget point of view, as every laptop a student brings in and uses takes pressure off the student labs. This, in turn, reduces the amount that has to be spent on standard-image, admin-locked, physical lab computers… and frees students to use their own computers which can be configured to best support their particular program of study. That’s what I call win-win!