As early as the nineties, McGill was at the forefront of developing a wireless network. Today that network provides over 2,500 wireless access points, each covering 250 square feet, and the university is in the process of upgrading its coverage and launching a three-year project to better integrate users around the campus.
“This is the first phase of a new, bigger and better McGill Wireless Network,” director of Network and Communications Services Gary Bernstein said. “Wireless access where it exists is now free for all students.”
As of Sept 1st, changes have been made to the wireless network and premium tariffs, once found in otherwise exclusive locations such as professors’ offices, have been removed, something most graduate students had to pay for.
But with the increasing coverage, speed and security, what social impact is near-ubiquitous wireless internet having on the student body and within the classroom? Is direct access to a nearly infinite amount of information beneficial to laptop-carrying students? Or are they inevitably teased into talking on MSN messenger, betting on PartyPoker.com and perusing the profiles of heartthrobs on Facebook?
“I don’t think it’s this big, revolutionary thing,” Jonathan Sterne, Professor of Communications and Art History, said. “It’s just part of the old story of students not paying attention, which has been complained about since the Stone Age. So it’s just an ongoing problem that has nothing to do with wireless. It’s just another tool in the ongoing struggle over attention.”
Sterne added that he would much rather have a student quietly and discreetly typing messages to a friend nearby than reading a newspaper, so the distractions are less notable to both students and professors. Sterne argues that it’s not the technology that is directly having an effect on users, but rather it’s what students want to get out of the available technology that is more important.
“Its not a question of whether wireless has a positive or negative effect but rather it’s what you want from student life and how student life gets organized with that [technology],” Sterne said.
According to Bernstein, NCS had anticipated some of the potential concerns before they began working towards ubiquitous wireless but added that the payoff far outweighs the costs.
Bernstein said that NCS is involved in providing the service, and that it should be the job of the professor to make and enforce any rules regarding technology in the classroom.
“We provide secure, ubiquitous, good-bandwith wireless, and the policing issues are going to be left up to the individual professors,” Bernstein said.
“We looked at a lot of other universities and the experience has been both good and bad,” Bernstein said. “There is a lot of good pedagogical, educational things you can do, but… some students will use their laptops to do instant messaging and checking email.
“Wireless Internet can be used both for good and bad, like in class research,” Ben Fombonne, U1 Political Science and History, said, adding that some people are foolish enough to leave MSN messengers sound on, disrupting the whole class. Yet there are students like Steph Lebhar, U1 Education, who confess they’d much rather use pen and paper when looking at slides to better internalize the information.
At the moment, students can look to the McGill NCS website for information concerning campus- wide network availability as well the progression of current and future projects.
-Additional reporting by Kayvon Afshari