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RV Sites, Crappy WiFi and Schools


I’m blogging again! Not through choice so much as circumstance. The motivation came upon me while sitting in a RV park near Sedona, Arizona. Sedona, as you may or may not know, is a mystical new age mecca, renowned for it’s aura which is supposed to promote spiritual peace and inner tranquility but, it’s definitely not working on me. I’m so angry and frustrated, I could chew nails or – write a blog post. The source of my frustration is the RV park’s WiFi system. I’m trying to use it to connect to the Internet but for all the success I’m having, I might as well try using to one of the famed “spiritual vortexes” for which this area is also well known.

Before going any further, let me explain my situation. I’m in an RV park because my wife and I are on a road trip. It’s week five of an eight week ramble through the American SouthWest. No definite plans or itinerary, just some vague notions of where we’d like to go, what we’d like to see and do. That part of the trip has been amazing. The part involving WiFi connectivity on the other hand, has been a nightmare.

Each night of our trip has been spent in a camp ground or RV park and each night has been plagued with the same frustration – crappy WiFi. It doesn’t matter if the park is grand and palatial or something from an episode of “Trailer Park Boys”, one thing never varies – crappy WiFi.

I should explain that crappy WiFi covers a multitude of issues from overloaded nodes, to poor signal strength, poor bandwidth and more. You name it, I’ve experienced it. No matter what the issue, the end result is always the same – little or no Internet connectivity.

When asked, some park managers will pass the buck. “Our IT guy looks after that. I’ll pass on your comments.” “When pigs fly.” is the phrase they subconsciously add but don’t actually say.

Others will deny there is a problem claiming, “Our system works fine. It must be a problem with your computer.” Network diagnostic apps like “Trace Route” and “Ping” say otherwise.

There are a few who really do seem to make a genuine effort to provide good service. For example, the manager of a beautiful RV resort outside Albuquerque, NM boasted of his recently improved and upgraded network.  Indeed, the network was wonderful with lots of access points and great signal strength. What he didn’t mention or perhaps didn’t realize was that this marvelous network was connected to a very narrow back-end pipe which was easily max’ed out by 3 or 4 users. So dear reader, let’s do the math on this equation. The park could accommodate over 100 RV’s. Each RV has at least two occupants and each occupant has at least one if not more devices.  When everyone is online, care to guess how long it takes to send an email message or load a web page? If you said, “Millennium”, you’d be close.

To be fair, there have been a couple of sites where the WiFi could best be described as “adequate”. Unfortunately, those were the exception, not the rule.

Why crappy WiFi should be such a constant and pervasive problem among RV parks is a mystery to me. It’s not like the technology is all that complicated or expensive. How hard (or costly) can it be to provide a decent coverage over what is essentially a 20+ acre field?

Many seasoned RV’ers have given up on park offerings and use some form of mobile solution instead such as an iPhone “hot spot” or “MyFi” digital cellar device. That’s obvious when scanning for access points. There are generally far more locked, private nodes then campsite access points. But, this type of mobile technology can be expensive, especially for non-Americans traveling in the US and so I must continue to “rely” on free WiFi.

I know what you’re thinking, “Who needs WiFi on holidays?”. I do. It’s an essential tool for finding tourist information, locating destinations, scanning weather updates or doing research in general.

What has my WiFi lament got to do with education or technology? A lot, especially in the age of “BYOD/BYOT” (Bring Your Own Device/Bring Your Own Technology).

An increasing number of educators are calling for schools/districts to allow students to use their smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc., in class. One example is a recent blog post by Doug Johnston in which he argues that students should be able to bring their own cell phones (or other e-devices) to school because they depend on these devices (their “other brain” as he describes them) just as much as adults.

The concept of BYOD/BYOT is great in theory but, the “devil” is in the details and that fact was highlighted by a “Tweet” from Cecile McVittie (@CecileMcVittie) educator and teacher/librarian from Kamloops, BC. It referred to an article from the BBC lamenting the poor state of WiFi connectivity in British schools. Sadly, I suspect that many (most?) North American schools are no better off.

For example, the district I recently retired from spent a “ton” of money building a modern wireless infrastructure. The concept was great but the result was slow, clunky, and barely useable.

All of this, dear reader got me to pondering. If a commercial RV park can’t provide decent internet connectivity (and that’s without the additional complications of filters, firewalls and monitoring) what chance does a school or school district have?

No doubt, there are a few districts just as there are a few RV parks which have found ways to supply adequate connectivity but I’m guessing they are few and far between.

If my guess is correct then what do you think will happen when droves of students bring their devices to class only to discover that the school’s wireless system is slow, clunky and woefully inadequate? I know how frustrated I got when faced with a similar situation and I consider myself to be a calm, patient, even tempered adult. I can only imagine how the typical “tween/teen” will react. After all, this not an age group known for patience or forbearance even at the best of times.

And, for the teacher with dreams of class flipping, student centered instruction and problem based learning, enabled through technology, good luck with that. Budget lots of class time for spinning beach balls, revolving hour glasses and frustrated students.

Speaking of student frustration, it not inconceivable that more affluent young people will do what many RV’ers have done, ignore the free system and use their own mobile data connection package instead. After all, most smart phones come with a reasonably generous voice and data plan. Why would students not use it? If given a choice between a clunky and slow school system or a personal 4G connection, I know which option I’d go with.

Will this then lead to yet another digital divide where affluent students with the newest digital devices and a fast, mobile data connection have a distinct advantage over students who depend on school supplied WiFi?

But wait – it gets better! For example, what responsibility might a school bear for students who used of their personal mobile devices/connections inappropriately while in school?

These are just a few of the problems that come to mind when thinking about schools and WiFi. I’m sure there are many more.

On second thought, maybe the issue of “Crappy WiFi” in RV parks isn’t such a big deal after all – not when compared to the ramifications in education.

John Goldsmith

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