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Error 404: In-class Wireless Ethernet Terminated by Faculty

The two-term experiment to bring cutting-edge wireless Ethernet technology to Aldrich Hall ground to a halt this month, after HBS faculty members voted to disable the system from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, citing concerns that it was a disruption within the classroom.

The decision was made despite a broad consensus among students who used the wireless network that provided a crucial convenience during breaksbetween classes.

The wireless Ethernet in Aldrich was unveiled last January, the same time a similar system was energized in the new Spangler Center. To make sure the network was put through its paces, a grant provided free wireless modems to each January Cohort student.

The technology was controversial almost immediately, with some students noting that their neighbors’ use of the web during class was distracting, and others raising concerns that students who were surfing rather than paying close attention to classes were hindering learning.

However, in most January Cohort classrooms, the issue was treated as something the section should deal with on its own through its standards and norms.

Freedom vs. Responsibility
To gauge student feelings on the issue, the Student Association conducted a poll, which received an almost 60% response rate. While most students who responded to the poll agreed that the network should not be used during class, there was an even split between people who thought it should be disabled, and those who thought students should be responsible for their own behavior.

More dramatically, more than 80% of the respondents said access between classes should be maintained, with several specifically noting the convenience it provided for off-campus students who might not enjoy a lightning-fast Internet connection at home.

Personal comments in response to the poll displayed the depth of the emotional reaction the issue, with one opponent of a ban on wireless access accusing supporters of “Gestapo tactics,” and others blaming the faculty members themselves for students’ web surfing.

“Any attempt to restrict non-disruptive side activities simply distracts from the key problem: the professor is not engaging,” one respondent wrote, while another urged faculty members to use the penalties at their disposal: cold calls and poor class participation feedback.

However, the flip side was represented as well, with students noting that in-class Internet use especially the use of instant messaging services-is distracting, and contending that the issue was not worth sparking additional section disagreements: “cut it off and move on,” one student wrote.

Faculty Turnaround
At the cohort’s farewell picnic last summer, Professor Hank Reiling, the cohort chair, urged the students to provide a model to their September cohort brethren in responsible usage of the network.

However, faculty members who had taught in the classrooms were taking a harder line, and in September, returning students were met by a letter from MBA Program Chair Carl Kester, expressly stating that wireless technologies-both the HBS network and students’ own wireless access- “may not be employed in class except as required by Faculty for educational purposes.”

Kester’s letter said faculty members and administrators would continue to review the school’s wireless policies and guidelines, but that in the meantime, the network would be disabled in Aldrich during class hours.

Because RC and EC class periods overlap, and it is difficult to immediately turn the system on and off, that decision meant the network would not be available between classes.

Although ultimately the decision on classroom policies rests with the HBS faculty, SA Co-President Mark Plunkett, OK, who administered the poll, said the student government would continue to encourage the administration to recognize the student viewpoints as it works on the final policy.

September 24, 2001
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