Got Social?

Internet “Kill” switch

** Warning – this is a long post, but well worth the read **

The following exchange took place on a listserve I follow that is made up primarily of high level IT/Administrative folks at institutions around the world (but mostly in the US).  I have scrubed any personal information.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on this.  Is it right for faculty to expect an technology answer for an “internet” free zone in their classroom or is it the instructors responsibility to manage that as part of regular classroom management?



I have been asked by some faculty to look into internet “kill switches” that would disable wireless internet access on personal laptops used during classroom instruction.  Here is a snippet of the original conversation.

Since we’ve been wrestling with the advent of personal computers being brought into our classes, and the plight of having to police students who are using their laptops for non-course-related activities during class sessions (playing games, surfing the web, checking Facebook, and the like), I’m wondering if we should check with the folks in IT and look into having our classrooms equipped with internet “kill switches”.  Many other colleges and universities have such devices, giving faculty the ability to control internet usage.  We have a similar control already available in the [snip] labs, but I’m curious if such an option might also be added to our classrooms?  This is just a thought that might benefit from discussion and consideration.  Problems surrounding personal computer use in our classes will only continue to be an issue; perhaps we should look into such an option more seriously?

The control to disable internet access in the [snip] labs that was referenced is using a product called LanSchool.  We install this in all our wired computer labs.  One of the features is that the instructor can disable access to the internet, but students can still use the rest of the features of the computer.

What are other institutions doing about this situation?  Is it even legal to block or kill wireless access?  I know that one approach is to put it back on the instructor to dictate behavior in the classroom.


I find it hard to believe the [snip] would allow us to kill cellular service, and even if we could, I shudder to think what the liability would be if we had disabled students’ cellular service and there was an emergency or other crisis. (How many schools use SMS for emergency communication services? We do.)  With 3G services now built into media consumption devices like iPads, I don’t think this is a battle IT should join. The faculty are going to have to control their own classrooms.


I should think that, since it is the University’s network, they may deploy it in whatever fashion they deem appropriate.

Several studies have been published recently indicating that students who have access to the Internet during class time tend to perform somewhat worse than those who do not, EVEN IF the access is used to augment the lecture material. Human beings are not well adapted to an interrupt-driven way of thinking, and having the laptops in the classroom tends to cause more interruptions in student thought processes than may normally occur when they are not used.

Just my two sous’ worth…


Wow.  Do the same profs who want the network disabled during class also take up cell phones (texting), pencils/pens (so students don’t doodle), and attempt to close the minds of the students so they don’t wander somewhere “unapproved”?

As an IT professional, MBA student, and father of college students I find this mindset repulsive.  I have found that most faculty of this mindset are more concerned with the sharpshooting that comes from those of us who don’t think that what we were just told is “the absolute truth” – or on some occasions, even remotely accurate.  I think that instead of concerning themselves with how to STOP the use of technology, they should spend more time on including it.  Additionally, they may need to work on their presentation skills.  I find that in those classes where the prof is boring, I surf.  If they are intellectually stimulating or able to present material in a captivating way, I don’t even start up my laptop.  If we ever implemented such a blocking technology on our campus, I would no longer attend class myself, move my kids who are attending to a more progressive school, and update my resume so that I could work for an institution that embraces the future as opposed to one trying to force us into the past.


I realize this comment is not going to be particularly helpful nor answer your specific question, but I can’t resist suggesting that we (because I know this question comes up on many of our campuses) should be asking ourselves two relevant questions here:

(1) Why are we investing significant resources in Internet and wireless access in general if faculty simply want to turn it off?

(2) Why are our students more interested in engaging with “playing games, surfing the web, and using Facebook” (all of which I would argue lead to significant learning) then the classes they are paying large sums of money to attend?

I’m obviously being a bit playful here in my questions as I know there are more to these issues but I do believe that they point to more serious questions about the degree to which we in higher education are engaging today’s students in meaningful learning experiences.  Maybe we should be turning this question around on faculty and asking them why they are not using games, the web and social networking more in their classroom instruction ;-) .

p.s. On a more practical note, I’d suggest finding more policy-based solutions to this issue…if students were bringing magazines to class and reading them while the lecture was going on I don’t think we would be talking about ways to shut off the lights so that they couldn’t read any more…we’d simply tell them not to do it and set up some consequences if they did.


I have taken the position that it is impossible to do this effectively without putting the classroom inside a Faraday cage.  With all of the mobile devices that students are carrying, just disabling the wireless and/or the wired connection in the classroom will not be effective as long as some students have a mobile device that can get cell coverage.

As I read your question more carefully, it is really two questions – can we block the Internet and can we block wireless.  The answer to the first is above.  The answer to the second is probably with appropriate technology.

To me, the bigger question is should we do this?  This is similar to the questions about blocking certain web sites to solve personnel issues.  I remember, long before the days of the Internet, that if we did not want to pay attention in class we could always find a way to do that and the instructors fought an ongoing battle to keep our attention.  Technology has just made this so much easier.  As long as the students who are not pay attention are not having an impact on others in the class, they are only hurting themselves.


A valid point on the 3G/4G network information; very difficult to stop that. School wireless could be shut down, but you really cannot stop the public carriers’ signals without effectively disrupting your emergency communications process (assuming you use cell phone service for that – who doesn’t?).

The bottom line, as he said, lies with the professor. My wife never let students use laptops or other devices in her classroom. Her philosophy is “You paid money to hear me, so I am going to make certain you do so.”


Just to pose a counter suggestion here…

If the goal is to sit in a class and absorb information being broadcast out from a lecturer, then I would agree that accessing the Internet while that was going on could be distraction and students might not do as well spitting back answers on a test based on that lecture.  This said, I’d theorize that if the Internet access in these classrooms was used to engage students in a real world simulation or problem solving project in which they were applying information to address real world challenges that they would outperform those sitting in the lecture (with or without laptops).

My point here is that anything can be a barrier to the learning process, it depends on how it is used.  If I flickered the lights off and on during a lecture it too would probably distract folks, but we don’t talk about removing lights from classrooms just because someone might use them in ways that distract from learning.


At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, in MY day I could easily have napped in certain lectures as some of the other students chose to do.  If I didn’t it was because I was interested in the topic and recognized my need to listen and/or interact with the faculty member.  if students choose not to do so, it is not the job of IT Services nor, I would suggest, the administration to enforce a longer attention span on its students.  *shaking my fist and yelling ‘Hey you kids get offa the lawn!” *


The recently published Shakespeare’s Blackberry has an interesting take on this issue which could inform decision-making on this subject. (cf. ).  The university has a long architectural tradition of building alcoves, cloisters and carrels to enable students to disconnect from the world and engage in focused thinking.  In so far as we still value these traditions we should be working to build the same sort of options into our information technologies as well.


Oops…my apologies to Powers; the book is Hamlet’s Blackberry


Internet-connected devices are trending toward operating on either WiFi or cellular networks.  Wired network ports in classrooms are mostly a thing of the past, except for the instructor’s use.  Aside from the liability issue Rick mentions of actively preventing people from calling for help in an emergency, the FCC has the following to say, which generally ends the conversation quickly:

From :

The operation of transmitters designed to jam or block wireless communications is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (“Act”). See 47 U.S.C. Sections 301, 302a, 333. The Act prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the U.S. government. 47 U.S.C. Section 333. The manufacture, importation, sale or offer for sale, including advertising, of devices designed to block or jam wireless transmissions is prohibited. 47 U.S.C. Section 302a(b). Parties in violation of these provisions may be subject to the penalties set out in 47 U.S.C. Sections 501-510. Fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each violation or imprisonment for up to one year, and the device used may also be seized and forfeited to the U.S. government.


I’ll agree that students have responsibility in the learning process and if they choose to not fulfill these then it is their lose (both in knowledge and dollars).

This said, I would argue that we in education also have a responsibility to engage our students in meaningful learning experiences that will provide them with the skills they need to succeed in the world.  I think there is a lot of compelling research-based evidence that teaching models that are dominated by lectures do not lead to the learning outcomes (critical thinking, problem solving, etc.) that we know are so critical for success in today’s world.

There is a difference in my mind between students napping in classes and them engaging in things like surfing the web and interacting with people via facebook.  Napping might tell us they are partying too much or the lecture is just boring.  Exploring web content and interacting with peers would more point to students who are awake and ready to learn, but who have found that they can get more from the technology tools they have at their finger tips then listening to the lecture.

Last, I would differ with you on the role that IT or at least academic technologist should be playing in these issues.  Given our knowledge of how technology can be used to enhance learning and the lot of this knowledge among many faculty, I do see a critical leadership role for us on our campus…one where we are not just providing excellence support services (a vital role for sure) but one in which we are questioning the logic of “Internet kill switches” and pushing faculty to view these technologies as powerful new instructional tools.


If the students choose to go to the carrels to “disconnect from the world and engage in focused thinking,” why cannot theychoose to turn off the device?  We need to learn to master the device and not be a slave to it.


I wouldn’t disagree with any of your points below as appropriate assignment of responsibilities is critical for our organizations:

  1. The faculty member as a dynamic and proactive developer of their curriculum
  2. The faculty member as an expert at pedagogy.
  3. IT as the conduit or the provider of technology infrastructure
  4. Academic Technologists as the guide and perhaps therapist for curricula that may be enhanced by a facet or facets of technology
  5. The student as the other and equally critical part of the teaching and learning formula
  6. The bars for enforcing the drinking age.

But I don’t think developing a “no blackberry/iPad/laptop/new gadget to come” policy is particularly useful as more eloquently stated by other contributors to this thread already.


Hooray – finally.  Not every human problem can be solved by technology.  A professor told me once he only teaches a lesson once and if the student misses the lesson because they’re on Facebook or texting a friend too bad.  Humans need to be held accountable for their actions not technology.


There are tools (like Student Response Systems and websites like polleverywhere) that can make a lecture more engaging and require students to pay attention.  And too, there is always the option for instructors to prerecord their lectures, place them on the internet and ask students to view them before class, so they can use class time for activities.

There are many ways to solve a problem, and the solution doesn’t have to be to take the technology away–especially when the students should be treated as adults, not children.


Hello all …

We actually had this same sort of query come up during our IT Strategic Planning exercise in 2005-06, and it resulted in an action item to address the situation.  Following is the way that was handed, as provided in our update/progress report in 2009:

ACTION ITEM 7.04: Policies should be developed so that instructors may discourage inappropriate use of wireless and other information technologies within the classroom.  This action item has been completed.

It was determined by the [snip] that instructors already possessed the ability to guide the use of IT in their classroom through existing classroom management policies [snip], and that a simple inclusion of instructor expectations for technology could be incorporated into syllabi as deemed necessary by individual faculty members.

So basically, the faculty already had/have the policy to control their classroom and they can exercise that control at their discretion in a variety of ways.  In the committee that debated 7.04, we addressed many of the technological barriers to blocking (i.e., we really can’t effectively do it) as well as engaged the faculty in a healthy discussion of how teaching should evolve to take advantage of technology and students’ use of it.  The faculty also shared ways in which they “control” use — some mentioned that if you have a laptop or device, you needed to sit down front — though in the intervening years, the number of students with these devices renders even that a bit insipid — there aren’t enough front seats!

We haven’t had this arise again since that discussion in 2007.  if it does, we point them toward the FITS update and help them understand the history.


We had the same question raised when we first started deploying wireless.  I asked the faculty what they would do if the student was reading a novel and how is being on a laptop different?  They agreed that it is a classroom management issue and it has never been raised again.

I find that people (not just faculty) look to technology as an easy way out, whether or not it is appropriate.  I find it interesting that of all the posts, we are not seeing the “Many other colleges and universities” with the kill switches for wireless.


And what about the faculty who are secretly using their iPhones and Blackberries under the table during

For the record, I am not in a meeting at this time :-)

Sent from my iPhone


I couldn’t agree more with my former colleague, [snip].  [snip] also cuts to the chase and makes the point very clear : it’s not the technology that is the problem; it’s the user (student) that needs to be held accountable.

I talk with my faculty all the time about technology in the classroom.  Rather that shutting it down, figure out ways to use it.  And they all agree that it’s the responsibility of the professor to keep the student engaged; keep them interactive and interested so they aren’t chatting on-line with their Facebook friends.

While we (College of Ed) do have relatively small class sizes (20 or so), handling the classroom is a bit easier than the lecture halls filled with students (100+) – but these classes aren’t usually interactive – students sit; instructors speak.

It’s not a technology issue – it’s a management issue.


Very interesting posts.  My sister, who was visiting the last couple of days reminded me that when  we went to college in the 70′s and 80′s it was often difficult to  study on campus because of all the hi-fi units broadcasting anthem rock into the quads.  Today’s students, if not quiet, are at least quieter; we’re all still listening to music but now we do it on our ipods as often as not leaving others in peace.  All of this is to say that if some faculty are asking for internet kill switches and are worried that I.T. innovations are jeopardizing our ability to engage in focused study there are at least a few inventions in recent years that have improved things.

More largely, I think that in some ways were at the middle stages of a conversation rather than at the end of one.  And [snip] broaches an important thread of it in suggesting that when the issue of kill switches comes up it’s a good opportunity to work with instructors to examine the assumptions underlying their own pedagogy and explore whether more social-networking and use of online tools might be the answer rather than less.   It’s a worth-while conversation and faculty should feel an obligation to explain why they want less connectedness rather than more.   But the same obligation extends to us as technologists (albeit in reverse).  After all, we are the ones who are complicit in bringing the distractions of the internet into the classroom. If we want to absolve ourselves of having to provide kill switches in classrooms we better be ready to explain why our current initiatives to wire up the campus are (in spite of some instructor’s impressions) in keeping with longstanding university initiatives to find a balance between the university as a quiet remove and one that is also connected with the larger world that sustains it.  Following William Power’s we’ll be better able to cultivate the good will of our faculty if we can assure them that our policies aren’t driven simply by digital maximalism.

PS:   In our next iteration of LMSs, higher education has been spending a lot of time and energy in thinking about how to build in options that allow instructors to control the amount of permeability in their virtual classroom walls.  If we’re eager to provide these technical options in our virtual solutions perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of providing these options in our brick and mortar classrooms as well.

  • Anxiety Treatment Website says:

    i like wireless internet because you can surf anywhere and you can avoid those ethernet cables “;*

    November 22, 2010 at 4:43 am

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