By Emma Campbell
There are many necessary factors that contribute to successful virtual learning — a quiet space in which to conduct lessons and meetings, a functional laptop supportive of online video chats, and a Wi-Fi connection. For the past several weeks, the Washington College campus has not been conducive to the latter.
In my journalism practicum class on April 9, my classmates and I lost internet connection six separate times before our professor accepted defeat and ended class early. Some of my friends in a German film class told me about an identical incident. Another time, my suitemate was kicked out of a virtual ceremony at which she had been slated to accept an award — an irony which she described as funny, but frustrating.
WC Wi-Fi issues have been so numerous and random that it is impossible to date every outage. It’s become something of a running joke among students on campus, who are already experiencing intense burnout from a stressful online semester, and now can’t even depend on being able to attend classes due to faulty internet connectivity.
“As a student who is expected to do all their learning and working virtually on a campus in the middle of farm fields with spotty cell reception amid a pandemic that prevents me from seeing family, friends, and peers, other than through a screen, it’s honestly ridiculous that [campus Wi-Fi issues continue] to happen,” sophomore Katherine Ritzler said. “I am just tired.”
Between July 23, 2020 and April 25, 2021, I have counted 14 emails from WC Tech Services alerting the campus community of Wi-Fi outages, maintenance work, and restoration. These emails are only sent out for major campus-wide updates relating to internet connection; they do not account for the blips that occur at random intervals throughout the day.
“Why didn’t they invest money into making [the Wi-Fi] stronger over the summer knowing it was problematic…and [knowing] it was going to be become even more vital when we returned?” Ritzler said.
In fact, WC did invest money in this issue, which is surprising given how little the investment has seemed to be worth it. According to Executive Director of the WC Office of Information Technology Regina Elliott, these frequent outages can be attributed to the Wi-Fi updates the College invested in to “support…the remote learning environment.”
“It was necessary to re-configure and re-engineer our wireless infrastructure,” Elliott said. “A hardware failure was involved and in this specific scenario, it was necessary to rebuild…our entire infrastructure. OIT worked through the night to ensure the Wi-Fi would be operational for the next day.”
Elliott is seemingly referring to the campus-wide outage on March 4, 2021. This outage lasted all day until the Wi-Fi was finally restored at 5:14 a.m. on March 5.
“As you teach and interact with students today, please keep in mind that their work may have been disrupted by the many hours the network was down,” Interim Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey said in an email addressed to WC faculty on March 5, 2021. “It may have been harder for some to do readings, complete assignments, or otherwise engage with course or other academic materials. Please use your usual wisdom in helping students get through this latest challenge.”
Elliott said that in addition to receiving complaints from students about the outages, faculty also expressed concerns “on behalf of the students.”
It’s no secret that WC is in financial trouble, and it’s possible that campus Wi-Fi is suffering the consequences of this fiscal strain.
“I have submitted a three-year capital budget request to our chief financial officer to upgrade our wireless infrastructure,” Elliott said. “I have received confirmation that the wireless project will be funded to enable us to replace the wireless infrastructure before students return in the fall.”
This project is definitely recommended, but these efforts may be too little too late — in the fall, if all goes well, WC may not be completely online anymore. Wi-Fi will never not be a necessity to WC students and faculty, but it will never be more vital than during the pandemic, which is also when it seems the least stable.
Hopefully, WC Wi-Fi will be completely secure by the time campus becomes more populated in the fall of 2021 — though there is no way for students to recover from the needless stress caused by the unpredictability of these outages.