Wireless warnings

April 30, 2004

Unless universities invest in secure wi-fi networks, individuals are likely to put their own systems in place. Pat Leon reports.

An explosion of wireless hotspots is prompting campus managers to review security and building estates strategy when it comes to their communications

facilities. Faced with a lack of university-wide wireless (wi-fi) local area network (WLAN) coverage, staff and students who are comfortable with mobile technology in the shape of laptops, phones and personal digital assistants are creating their own networks. Meanwhile, universities that have taken wi-fi seriously are busy setting up departmental, library, laboratory or residential systems as replacements for or in addition to land lines.

Tom Franklin, consultant and author of a wireless report for TechLearn (the now-defunct Joint Information Systems Committee advisory service), says: “Universities are not all thinking strategically. They need a wireless policy, whether it is policing or banning use, because if not, individuals will go down to the local electronics superstore, buy a kit and plug in.”

Companies, such as Cisco, T-Mobile and Intel are targeting UK universities with a new mobile data service combining three technologies: 802.11 wireless LAN networks, 3G (third generation) and GPRS (general packet radio system) mobile networks. Students will get discounts on hardware as part of the package.

This follows a pilot project involving free use of IBM Thinkpads by 360 undergraduates at Strathclyde University and others at Middlesex and Brunel universities and Henley Management Centre.

Mike Sharples, head of Birmingham University’s Centre for Educational Technology and Distance Learning, which is working with Microsoft on another student mobile-learning project, says that the hotspot breakout is being pushed from below. “University managers who were thinking in terms of three or four years are now saying: 'We must have a strategy in the next three or four months’.”

Security is the main issue, although Franklin says fear of the unknown is a bigger stumbling block to institutional wi-fi expansion than fear of “war-chalkers” - the people who cruise around city streets and campuses looking for “leaky” networks that they can piggyback to make an internet connection. Franklin says: “By its nature, wireless is less secure because you can just sit there and listen to what is being broadcast. Most universities and colleges in the UK are paranoid about security and want to lock everything down.”

As well as the theft of bandwidth, IT chiefs are concerned about coverage, interference and cost. There are also competing standards in wi-fi technology and protocols to consider.

Sharples argues that security is not the real issue. “At Birmingham, we and the computer science department are working to provide secure WLANs, linking them with university firewalls and individual registration systems that give different types of access.”

In an ideal world, wi-fi networks would talk to one another and students would be able to wander around logging into the campus intranet with ease. But that requires compatibility, accepted standards and forethought. Stephen Brown, professor of learning technologies at De Montfort University and chair of the Association for Learning Technology, says: “We are not seeing the systematic introduction of wireless onto campuses but pockets of experimentation at departmental level. Therefore, we are not getting top-down strategies with a business rationale.”

“The real rub for universities,” Brown says, “is how wi-fi affects learning and teaching.” Research in the US, where campus wi-fi is more widespread, shows students are behaving differently, he says. They are more inclined to form study groups and colonise spaces, such as the caf? or woodland on a sunny day, to work. Corridors become study centres, with students sitting down in groups of two or three opening up their laptops. Smokers will go out and work in their cars.

“It’s a more flexible way of studying. But the real change will come only when everyone is using it. But as soon as most can log on, you will get a step change. Students will act spontaneously. They’ll start mailing each other in class while the teacher’s talking. The teacher will be able to pick that up and respond. It will become a much more open way of teaching and learning. But it’s like a library - if only a few people have access to books, it’s no good setting assignments.”

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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