What Happens When a School’s Internet Fails?

That U.S. schools and classrooms have widely adopted both new technological hardware and software is not a man-bites-dog story. Desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones are available to most American students at home and in school in 2022. Common as pen and paper, these devices are used daily in U.S. classrooms. Principals, teachers, and students depend upon these devices. What happens in a school, then, when the system crashes?

In an Australian high school a few years ago, the Internet went down while university researchers were in the building for the two days that the network was down.

What happened in the school and to classroom teaching and learning when clacking keyboards went silent and screens stayed dark?

This excerpt is taken from Neil Selwyn, et. al. Everyday Schooling in the Digital Age: High School, High Tech? (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 1-3. Neil Selwyn is a Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. His research and teaching focuses on digital media in daily life including uses of technology in schools and classrooms.

The start of a sunny Thursday at Lakeside High School. The playgrounds and
communal spaces are buzzing as usual. At 8.50 am nobody seems to notice
that the music fails to kick in over the loudspeakers as scheduled. Piped-in music
is usually used as an initial indication that people should start thinking about
heading to their first classes. Some kids – gazing into smartphones and social
media – saunter around on autopilot, unaware they should be getting
themselves sorted. Others just hang around, beginning to sense that something
is not quite right. As the minutes tick past, an unsettled vibe begins to spread.
In the main building, the Assistant Principals’ office is uncharacteristically
empty. Next door is the staff room, where teachers and administrative staff are
making the most of their downtime. On one table, a group of young female
teachers are finishing off breakfast and updating each other on reality TV shows.
Another table of middle-aged men banter about sports. A few older teachers
are huddled in the kitchen drinking coffee and comparing lesson plan ideas.
No disquiet here, even though it is 8.58 am with classes scheduled to start
at 9 am.

A few seconds later an unfamiliar sounding bell rings. Teachers and students
look startled but then start to move with purpose along the main corridor, lined
with rusting blue lockers, hand drawn posters and laminated classwork tacked
onto the wall. It is not long before one of the Assistant Principals announces
through the loud speaker that ‘the school network has gone down’. What was
shaping up to be an ordinary school day is suddenly turned on its head

One of the immediate consequences of the network ‘going down’ was that
the computerized alarm system failed to shuffle an MP3 file to play as the daily
8.50 am mood music. Although I haven’t been researching in Lakeside for long,
a total network failure sounds like a serious disruption. For a few hours we
might have to go back to an ‘old school’ way of doing things . . . back to
when Lakeside didn’t rely on digital technology to function. Back to a non-
digital way of life?

People racing out of the staff-room are clearly treating this as a big deal.
Some teachers remain inside the staff room, moaning that they don’t know
what to do because their lessons have been planned around particular apps
and online exercises. A couple of the male teachers drop their footy
conversations and make a beeline for where the ‘IT boys’ are based in an
attempt to find out from the school’s technicians exactly how serious this
network glitch is.

I head toward my own scheduled class. It feels that the mood of the school
is quickly shifting. An odd sense of uncertainty seems to spread amongst
teachers, administrators and students. Some teachers are grumbling that they
need to trek back to the staff room to check the noticeboard for their daily
schedule. There is no ‘real time’ information coming to anyone’s mobile
device. As a drama teacher recounted a few weeks later:
Everyone was freaked out – so freaked out. They got freaked out when
the bells didn’t ring. They got freaked out when the machines didn’t work.
There was a lot of panic and crazy. . . . It’s machines. They’re likely to
break. Get it together. . . . It just makes me laugh because you’ve got to
be able to survive.

Amidst this flurry, students with their own mobile phone data plans look
a lot less bothered. Many continue to gaze into various handheld devices. An
inability to check school email or access work through the school management
system is clearly not a huge drama. Yet while these students are unfazed, others
are not coping as well. Seizing an opportunity to grab people’s attention, one
of the more ebullient Year 9 boys raises his arm for attention and shouts at
the top of his lungs: ‘The internet is broken . . . my life is broken!’

While the students who were around me at the time generally seemed
nonplussed, in later conversations the Principal points out that Year 12 students
who were due to spend their lessons preparing coursework for the final
national examinations ‘would have been bleeding’. In contrast, his own Year
8 students had been elated when they were told the classes that had been
prepared for them were not happening: ‘They were just, “Woo-Hoo!” They
don’t care . . . they were happy because their phones were okay.’
Certainly, the subsequent 2 days without the network in Lakeside were full
of incident. Yet all my conversations after the event seem to concur that this
was a crisis more for staff than students, largely because of the school’s reliance on digital technologies for the planning and delivery of lessons.

As the Principal observed:

There’s probably somewhere between 75 classrooms in this school that
are in operation every period. Half of these will be classes mediated through
a wireless network and the Internet. So you’ve got 35 classrooms that
suddenly have to go to Plan B. And if all the planning and resources are
sitting somewhere in the cloud . . . or anywhere that requires a wireless
connection . . . then they’re screwed.

Luckily I was not so troubled. On the contrary, as an academic researcher
trying to make sense of how digital technologies were being used in the school,
this failure was a gift. The network continued to be shut off for 2 whole days.
This was not a temporary malfunction. Instead, it was caused by a faulty cable
that had been installed a few days earlier by telecoms contractors working in
the street outside the school. This was not a ‘glitch’ that would be solved by
turning the system off and then turning it on again. Full service was not restored
until the following Monday morning. Until then, the shutdown proved to be
a revealing 2 days in the life of the school. Things carried on and people
improvised. Yet there was also an acute sense of what was missing and a fleeting
reminder of the extent to which even the most mundane school processes
and practices had become dependent upon digital technologies and digital

For example, many of the core processes of the school day were interrupted
during this network failure. At the start of the school day, missing students
could not be officially noted as absent or late. Electronic rolls could not be marked. Parents were not informed via the automated SMS system. During both days, administrative messages were circulated on paper or broadcast via the PA system. Coursework could not be uploaded by students and marked
online by their teachers. School librarians reported being inundated by students
complaining that ‘I can’t find any information.’ Teachers were unable to
access e-books. This might have been avoided if staff and students had
downloaded PDFs at the beginning of the year, but it turned out that most
had not got around to doing this. As the Head Librarian noted on the second
day of the blackout: ‘I think a lot of things could be avoided. It doesn’t
necessarily have to be the nightmare it is.’

Of course, school life in Lakeside continued as best it could. Some teachers
reverted to not using technology at all. Others continued to use their laptops
and office computers, whiteboards and other offline digital practices. Some
teachers revelled in discovering inventive work-arounds, remembering what
they did in the days before networks and cloud storage. Work groups passed
around files on USB sticks rather than through Google Drive or email. As the
school’s Head of Innovation put it: ‘We had to go back to remembering USBs
. . . it was almost like a bygone piece of technology.’

Yet even the most ingenious teachers found it difficult to track students
from class to class, and the school nurse was unable to keep tabs on students’
medical needs. A scheduled fire drill on Thursday made it clear that some
teachers were failing to take accurate attendance records on paper. The
exercise was abandoned after 15 minutes as no-one could be precisely sure
which students were actually meant to be in school. These were all procedures
that had taken place in Lakeside during the pre-computer age, yet ways of
doing these things without the support of digital technology had largely been
forgotten. People had fallen out of their analogue habits.

These 2 days were recalled in conversations and interviews long after the
event. The post hoc story as spun by school leaders and managers suggested
that it was teachers who had struggled to cope. Teachers and other staff told
a different story. As the drama teacher pointed out:
The hierarchy [school management] were the most panicked, which of
course they would have to be because they are responsible for everyone
getting to class on time . . . they couldn’t get messages to people. That’s
when you depend on communication, and for communication you need
to have a relationship. You can’t build relationships that are really strong
just like ‘that’.

Then, as time passed, people’s memories of an extraordinary 2 days with
no access to digital technology began to be recalled in more reflective terms.
As the school Principal reflected during the next academic year:
You know what was bizarre? After the first half a day, I actually found it
really relaxing. Next door, we both commented at the end of day two,
‘How good was that?’ Like we just had this day-and-a-half of no email
interruptions . . . it’s almost like you had licence to ignore a bunch of stuff
that you wouldn’t normally be able to ignore. I got some quite deep work
done in a calm and peaceful way.’

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