Monday, April 8, 2013

Wifi in schools

Should schools be installing wifi to enable the use of wireless devices? My answer is no, but this is a hot topic with a lot to think about.

Recently the BC Teachers Federation contemplated some motions at their annual general meeting on this subject. This follows motions passed by the BC parent group, BCCPAC, which calls for at least one wifi free school in every district. Another group of parents, in York Region District in Ontario, set up a picket to protest the installation of wifi.

The discussion about wifi is about more than just health, although health is at the centre of the debate. Those opposed to the installation of wifi are concerned there are health risks and that our current knowledge of the health implications are incomplete but worrisome enough to act in a precautionary way.

First, on the science and health.

1. There are peer reviewed research papers that support the claim of health risks of wifi radiation (even low levels), and there are peer reviewed research papers that dispute the claim. For a listing of papers concerning health and learning implications, see #wifistudy on twitter, for example.

2. The science, and the evaluation of the science, is not conducted in a neutral environment. There are many large corporate interests  promoting the safety of wifi. Some of the research is directly funded by these interests. I probably don't need to convince anyone that CISCO and Apple and SMART Technologies spend money to promote educational technology. But beyond the direct, there is a vast web of indirect influence.

Thousands of individuals have a direct personal interest in the use and expansion of technology in schools, and this includes wireless technology. For example, the TIE lab, at the University of Victoria, has as its primary research focus the use of technology in learning environments. The people and students who work at that lab have a pre-determined starting point: that there is value in spending resources to investigate and expand the use of technology in learning. Here is their statement of purpose:

The purpose of the TIE lab is to strengthen research excellence regarding the appropriate use of networked and computer‐mediated technologies for enhanced communication, learning, and motivation across educational, professional, and health sectors. The TIE lab provides state‐of‐the‐art Infrastructure for systematically researching optimal e‐learning conditions, tools, processes and products. TIE Lab infrastructure will be used for research purposes only. Research conducted through the TIE Lab will help to maintain Canada’s ranking as a leader in the field of innovation and technology.

Evident is that prior to any research taking place, the goal is to "lead" in "innovation and technology". Absent is any questioning about the value of technology in the first place, or what the technology will displace.

The BC government has also been instrumental in promoting a vision of education reform based on technology integration and expansion. This vision was first articulated in the Premier's Technology Council paper. It is used to justify the promotion of "edtech" throughout the public education system in BC. This happens in direct and indirect ways.

For example, there are several publicly funded institutions who promote edtech. One is BCCAMPUS, which develops technology "solutions" for post-secondary institutions in BC. Here is there statement of purpose:

BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all B.C. post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework. We provide valued services to institutions, ensuring B.C. learners, educators, and administrators get the best, most effective technologies and services for their learning and teaching needs.  We provide an ICT infrastructure for student data exchange, shared services, online learning and distance education, communities of practice and online resources for educators.

Needless to say, they also don't seem to do much to question the value of technology enhancement and integration. It is a given that it is good.

In the K-12 world, we have ERAC. Schools and Districts can choose to join ERAC and access their group software purchasing agreements. But they do more than this:

ERAC also provides leadership in the areas of new technology and new media and their potential roles in education. We provide educators with research-based trends and also encourage sharing of knowledge and experience within the membership.

So public dollars go to ERAC via school Districts to support these edtech initiatives.

I am just scratching the surface, but what is clear is that there is a substantial and growing public/private infrastructure that promotes educational technology. And promotes it on the basis that the starting point for consideration is that expansion of technology in schools is valuable.

People in these positions cannot evaluate the science in a neutral manner. They have an interest. If they are employed in one of these institutions, or have made a career in the world of edtech, they have a personal interest.

3. There is an "attack" atmosphere towards those who conduct research into the risks of wifi and those who are active to make those risks known to the public. Consider, for example, the experiences of one scientist who described the climate for research in this talk at Harvard:

In his lecture, “Protection Against Radiation is in Conflict with Science,” Adlkofer discussed the difficulties he and other scientists face when presenting research on the carcinogenic effects of electromagnetic fields emanating from cell phones. He also discussed the institutional corruption which he says obstructs their research.

Even at the low level of twitter feeds, there is a tendency to paint those concerned with the health effects of wifi as unscientific and irrational.

4. There is fairly wide variation in the response of public health officials. In particular, European health agencies have taken a much stricter approach to setting standards and exposure levels. The Toronto Board of Health produced the following comparison chart:

table 1 Toronto Board of Health 2007

5. Given the factors already listed, we can look back on history and consider how these similar responses impeded a timely reaction against other technologies that had harm to human health, such as asbestos, cigarettes, and lead. There is a pattern of public debate that obfuscates the promotion of public health as the first and most legitimate priority when there are profits to be made.

This is just the health discussion. The next consideration, in my view, is to consider what is to be gained from the use of wifi in schools. Interestingly, this debate takes on many of the same hues. The corporate interests in pushing technology cloud the discussion. There is rarely any meaningful talk about what is lost when technology is introduced. And there is sometimes an almost frenzied attachment to a pro-technology viewpoint.

No doubt those parents in York Region looked at the issue somewhat differently - probably just based on their lived experience. This year, my own daughter came home one day having completed a note taking assignment on an iPad. She had to share with others (although our District spent $340,000 on Apple products last year, there was not a full class set). She and the other students struggled with the awkward typing interface. No doubt the iPad sat in her lap, and no-one warned her of the potential for radiation exposure that even Apple indicated in the product manual for an iPad, that they should be held away from the body. If there is a health risk, is an experience like this worth it?

I laughed earlier this year when someone responded to my tweet about the advantages of outdoor Kindergartens by suggesting that wireless devices were great because they enabled schooling to take place outdoors more easily - just grab your laptop and go. What a statement this is about how we view nature and outdoors - just another place to compute in?

Don't get me wrong - there are many wonderful, advantageous aspects to using computers in education. But far too many people are in far too much of a hurry to adopt new technologies without any thoughtful reasons because the atmosphere of the discussion predisposed an outcome - that technological enhancement is inherently of value.

The wifi debate is no different. It is obscured by bias, conflict of interest and corporate influence. Given this, I choose precaution.


  1. I'm familiar with the "attack" response to anyone brave, or fool enough, to question the health impacts of wireless technologies. "Self-appointed wireless industry attack dogs" are quick to denigrate and dismiss any and all demented enough to question the safety of wireless, especially for youth

  2. Tech industry tries to brainwash the public that WiFi is the "only" way to "quality education". Their Marketing Depts call wireless devices "SMART" and call classrooms and students "connected" when hooked up with WiFi and individual wireless devices.

    Connected to who? To electronics but not the teachers and each other. Researcher such as UK's neuroscientist Susan Greenfield (and many more) who are not funded by Ed Tech corporations do not agree with those marketing taglines. In fact, the lack of empathy and reduction in the ability to perceive are among many parameters observed in children and youth with increased electronics and screen time. (Summary here:

    Health is also a pressing concern.

    Switzerland's leading IT and telecom company, Swisscom, admited 10 years ago in their patent document that WiFi frequency is "genotoxic". Swisscom provides free fibre-optic wiring to Swiss schools for children.

    Here in BC, schools are flooded with wireless routers and are stocking up iPads for 21st Century Learning, but little (mostly - no) safety protocol is provided to teachers on how to avoid and reduce radiofrequency exposure from the use of iPads. The manufacturer actually states in their user manual that if the iPads are not "correctly" held, the radiation level will EXCEED governments' exposure limits to humans. Please see these links for further explanation:

    iPad User Manual's Safety Warning and Disclaimer.
    Have You Read It?

    21st Century Learning: Higher Radiation from iPads on WiFi than Cellphones that are Actively Transmitting

    Tara, your assessment of the BC Tech Council is absolutely correct. The provincial government treats Education as a gateway for marketing our BC IT industry. There was no consultation with teachers and parents to ascertain actual padagogical values before $millions was spent on wireless "upgrades".

    Instead of reading studies funded by Smart Tech, Dell or Cisco, or following tweets and suggestions of people whose jobs or employers are predicated on the expansion of wireless, we recommend the advice from these governmental bodies and doctors' associations who looked at the available science critically and upheld Precaution and Avoidance for the safety of children and teachers.

    Thanks, Tara, for your excellent summary of the state of affairs regarding WiFi in Schools.

  3. To be clear, Tara: you're arguing that a few folks are the only ones who truly understand how wireless technology works. You're arguing that every international public health body has been somehow corrupted or bought off by industry. More than that, you're arguing that the innumerable companies involved in wireless technology are deliberately harming their users, attacking innocent bystanders, and threatening the future of the human race.

    I'm a conspiracy fan from way back, but this exceeds anything that I find remotely credible. I'm really pleased that you're so concerned about our children's health, and about the future of education in BC, but on this issue, I'm baffled by the underlying approach.

    If research starts to show that there are health concerns, then all of us paying attention to this debate are going to start arguing against wifi. I'm one of the "low level of twitter feeds" you mention, and I can say that my friends and colleagues, like me, would shift our positions in a heartbeat if there was credible research, by credible researchers, in anything like the volume necessary to call the overwhelming majority view into question. Most of us have no stake whatsoever in technological research or development, either, so I get really offended at blanket allegations of bias or conflict of interest. But that's a subject for another day.

    If I might make a suggestion for those who, like you, would like to see anti-wifi science being taken seriously: find credible sources. Martha Herbert, for example, isn't someone you want associated with your position, because of her comments about autism's relationship with vaccination. If the only sciency-sounding, academic-looking publications are coming from suspect writers, there's just no way that their ideas are going to be taken seriously.

    If you want to take down a consensus, you'll be better off not relying on people whose associations with unrelated conspiracy theories have already come under significant attack.

  4. 1. The science is complex and most people rely on those with some expertise for advice. Hence the existence and reliance on health regulation bodies.

    2. As I said, the regulatory bodies have very different standards. There is not "consensus".

    3. Yes, companies that profit from their products knowingly produce and market harmful substances. The cigarette industry and the pharmaceutical industry are excellent examples about which many people have written extensively. Companies that produce wireless technology products have every reason (profits) to promote the view that the risks of their products are minimal.

    4. "If research starts to show..." Research is not conducted in a vacuum. It happens in a world in which politics has influence as well as science. Again, take a a look at the pharmaceutical industry and how they "game the stats" with research.

    5. Being on the pro-tech bandwagon is the easy position and if you want career advancement and grant opportunities, this will be helpful. Universities are now so influenced by corporate research dollars it is harder and harder to find genuinely independent research anywhere.