Wireless Classrooms: Evolution or Extinction?

Automatic Teller Machines initially appeared inside banks, right next to the human tellers they emulated. ATMs disbursed money and accepted deposits, but when banks closed for the day, ATMs were locked inside, as useless and inaccessible as the vacant teller cages they abutted. Even locked inside a bank, ATMs provided a few evolutionary advantages over human tellers. Waiting lines were shorter and ATMs never took breaks. However, there was a loss of human contact. An ATM never asked about Uncle Larry’s gout or suggested a loan for your daughter who was entering college.

Wireless notebook initially appeared inside classrooms on the same laps that previously held paper notebooks or wired laptops. Wireless notebooks could be used to look things up and do classroom collaboration, but when class was over and students were out of range of wireless access points, wireless laptops were not much better than the paper or silicon solutions they superseded. Even limited to classrooms, wireless laptops had some evolutionary advantages, but these did not begin to exploit the possibilities of mobile intelligent devices.

Unfortunately, the use of wireless laptops in classrooms reduced human contact and made it easier for students to ignore their teachers while they exchanged instant messages and searched the Web.

Eventually it was realized that making ATMs accessible after banks closed made them more useful. This evolutionary advance allowed around-the-clock access to one’s money still required a visit to the bank, but on the downside, a secluded ATM invited crime.

Eventually campuses discovered that wireless was more useful when it was also available outside classrooms. Students could continue to access information and collaborate in hallways, student centers, and under trees. Since the best way to collaborate on campus often was face to face, wireless access made it easier for students to avoid human contact.

Finally realizing that users just wanted their money, banks began distributing ATMs to shopping malls, convenience stores, airports, and other places where people needed access to their money.

Unfortunately there is no analog to even this small evolutionary ATM advance in the use of wireless on campus. Students do not regularly bring their laptops to class because there is no compelling reason to do so. Wireless hasn’t changed this. The mobility of wireless devices will allow a major paradigm shift in the delivery of education but we have only managed the tiny evolutionary equivalent of putting ATMs on the outside walls of banks. This is a useful bit of progress, but not worth the money or hype that wireless commands.

When you have $2,000 in a bank, your bank d'esn’t keep ten thousand pictures of Andrew Jackson for you. It just has a number on some disk that says you have $2,000. To use your money, your bank just needs to decrease your number and increase the numbers it keeps for Pizza Hut, Windsor Service Station, or Hyatt Hotels, for example. We have learned from ATMs that we don’t need banks to manage our cash—as long as ATMs evolve rather than undergo a paradigm shift, they will still be teller-like objects that are small improvements over human tellers. A paradigm shift is very difficult because it involves extinction, not evolution of the old. Once we realize we are only moving bits, not pictures of presidents, this paradigm shift is possible and those old inconvenient ATMs go away. Then we can buy things with something we have with us anyway; a cell phone, cash card, watch, PDA, thumbprint, or whatever.

To make the paradigm shift with campus wireless possible—or even advance its evolution—wireless must be ubiquitous and seamless. Wireless devices need to work, not just on campus, but globally, and they must be able to go from campus to home to plane to Sri Lanka seamlessly. And we can’t teach a course that makes effective use of wireless technology without an appropriate wireless device.

With these infrastructure requirements, we could have classes that really use the mobility of mobile devices. One small step in that direction would be to have distributed classes where some students would physically be in a classroom while others would be distributed to various action sites. Learning about pollution? Have some students locate different polluted sites and participate in the class on site like the evening news. “This is Sue reporting Podunk the toxic chemicals are pouring into the Crimea River.”

At times there may be no one in the physical class at all. Studying Greek Revival architecture? Send students to different parts of a city to look for it. Have them share their findings with the class scattered across dozens of square miles of city during what would have been their class time - and beyond.

With wireless we do not need classrooms at all. Students do not need to come together in the same spot at the same time to learn. Classrooms are an unfortunate compromise on the best way to deliver education. They exist because we lacked the technology to have each student learn in the ever-changing way and place that suited each student best. The promise of wireless is a paradigm shift that would begin the extinction of classrooms, courses, and free learners to learn everywhere - no longer tethered to a classroom.

When our ATMs finally go away we will see a quantum leap in our ability to manage our money. Giving up classrooms will do the same for learning. We can just keep evolving wireless on campus and see some small improvements in education, or we can dare to think about real mobility in education and change the world. Extinction is only bad when you’re a dinosaur.

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