What Connected Educators should takeaway from our parental survey on WiFi in schools

tl:dr: Are you a teacher using technology in your classroom? Help parents understand how you are using it. Tell them how and (more importantly) why you use it. Parents don’t know & we need to know.

My HTML5 Word Cloud

The school district I live in (SD61 in Victoria BC) has been dealing with a contentious issue for the past 2 years that has held up the installation of wireless networks in a number of our schools. A vocal group of citizens has had a 2 year sustained campaign lobbying school district trustees with the message that WiFi is not safe. That the EMF radiation given off by WiFi routers and WiFi enabled devices pose a health risk to students.

I have been hesitant to blog about the fight here because I know what is coming in the comment section, if the comments on my other site are any indication. This spring, concerned that the anti-wifi camp was winning and influencing our school district trustees, I set up a website to counter some of the claims they were making and to begin to make an argument that I felt was being lost in the health “debate” – that there are pedagogical implications to having schools without ubiquitous internet access enabled by wireless technologies like WiFi.

To make a long story short, the local parental advisory council (PAC) collective for the district (known as VCPAC) intervened with the district and said they would do a parental survey to give the SD trustees some more information about whether or not parents felt that WiFi in schools posed a health risk to their kids.

The results of that survey have been released (if the links to VCPAC don’t work, you can download the survey summary (pdf) and parent comments (pdf)) and I wanted to make a point about the results for connected educators who use technology in their classroom: please tell parents how you are using it and why you are using it.

The results show that there is concern about WiFi in schools, but not for health reasons. While the aggregate numbers show some levels of concern, the details of what those concerns are become much clearer when you read the comments. There are many parents are struggling to see the value of not just wireless technology in the classroom, but the role of technology in the classroom period.

To make it clear, this survey was done based on the notion that WiFi poses a health hazard (a risk that public health officials have continually rejected). The VCPAC did quite a good job of separating the health from the “appropriate use of technology in the classroom” argument in the buildup to the survey but still, those fears about how technology is used in the classroom are abundant in the qualitative responses.

Here’s a sample of what parents are thinking/saying. I should say that I don’t know if these are concerns of people who voted for, against, or were of no opinion in the qualitative questions of the survey.

“I don’t have as many health concerns about wifi (let’s face it, it’s everywhere) as I do have access concerns. Kids may be bringing smartphones, tablets etc and therefore wifi in schools enables our kids open access to everything on the web – THAT is concerning. Can we assume that everyone has parental controls on their kids devices?”

“As a parent of a child in kindergarten I find no specific or positive need to computing or information processing systems. As a matter of opinion elementary students should have no need to access anything related to wireless communications. Even teenage students moving into high school should have no need for WiFi devices within an academic institution.”

“I do not think kids should have unlimited wireless access to the internet while at school. Increased accessibility will increase the use of Cell phones, iPads, and iPods during school hours. This practice should be actively discouraged.”

“Children in Elementary school do not require internet use to learn. Can they not “hardwire” internet into each classroom? Why is WIFI required? How much internet use is needed to justify WIFI?”

“Computer games becomes the new addiction which destroy kids’ future. Most education don’t realize that yet. There are so many kids who are stuck and hooked up with computer games. It is a tragedy.”

“Computers and technology are completely unnecessary at the Elementary school level. Elementary schools should focus on the 3 R’s Reading, (w)Riting & (a)Rithmatic. If they don’t learn the basics in Elementary school, when are they going to learn the basics?”

“Dont have health concerns but do have concerns about kids being able to access information on electronic devices they bring; also don’t believe there is a demonstrated need.”

Now, like many parents, I also have concerns over how technology is used in the classroom, and that it is used appropriately and with purpose and intent. But unlike many parents, I have a perspective informed by my network connections. Because within my PLN I am connected to many educators working in the k-12 system who are doing amazing things with technology in their classrooms and, as a parent,  I want to help set up the conditions for those amazing things to happen in other classrooms as well. Which is why I got involved in this fight to make sure there is wireless access in our schools to allow those amazing things to happen.

So, here is my plea as a parent with kids in the k-12 system to the connected teachers who are using technology in the classroom. Help parents understand how technology is being used in your classroom. Become an informed advocate as to why you use technology in the classroom – what it is you are trying to achieve by using technology. Parents don’t know, and we need to know so that when really basic decisions like enabling connectivity happen, we can help support your continued use of technology in schools.

Thanks. And I would appreciate it if you could pass this blog post on to any connected educator using technology in their classroom.

As for the survey results, I believe that these will be forwarded onto SD61 trustees, who will then likely reconvene their standing WiFi committee. Here is hoping that these results will help put this issue to rest in our district, and can be used in your district if you ever need to fight a similar battle.

Image credits: Word cloud of open ended responses to VCPAC parental survey by Scott Leslie used with permission. Note that words which appeard less than 25 times are omitted from this image.