How 5G Can Give New Meaning to Connected Learning

By Scott Simone, Contributor

In 2012, serial tech entrepreneur Evan Marwell launched EducationSuperHighway, a non-profit with a lofty goal: to provide students, no matter their zip codes, with reliable, high-speed internet access. A year later, President Barack Obama announced a similar public initiative. Dubbed ConnectED, the then-president set the government on a track to provide 99 percent of students across the country with broadband within a five-year timeframe.

In today’s digital world, connectivity has become a pillar on which education leans.

While neither of these initiatives has come to full fruition, they bring to bear one fact: In today’s digital world, connectivity has become a pillar on which education leans.

It makes sense. Eighty percent of teachers believe technology empowers their teaching process, according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s fourth annual “Educator Confidence Report.” Moreover, more than half of all the 30 million-plus students enrolled in public elementary and high schools use Google apps like Gmail and Google Docs.

Then there are the studies of technology’s effect on education. A recent summary of 126 studies on the use of technology in education found that certain educational software programs have significantly improved learning outcomes. How much so? Of the 30 studies looking into computer-assisted learning programs, 20 reported statistically significant positive effects, according to the summary.

With the impending launch of 5G networks, the role of technology in education will continue to evolve. From accelerating education trends like augmented reality (AR) and gamification to blossoming online curriculum, education may look vastly different with the 5G rollout.

Welcome to Augmented Learning

Picture this: Rather than flipping through pages of a textbook to read about ancient Rome, a student embarks on a virtual tour of the city. She’ll experience the art, the architecture, and the culture as if she’s really there.

Picture this: Rather than flipping through pages of a textbook to read about ancient Rome, a student embarks on a virtual tour of the city.

As many education professionals see it, this is the type of learning 5G will make more accessible to students by further enabling virtual and augmented reality with its low latency and peak download speeds—estimated to be as high as 20 gigabits-per-second.

According to Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D. and a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, “virtual and augmented reality headsets will allow students to place themselves anywhere in the world and even within a story. These digital experiences will enliven current curricula and allow students to energize their imaginative and explorative qualities, which should be central to educational experiences.”

“These digital experiences will enliven current curricula and allow students to energize their imaginative and explorative qualities, which should be central to educational experiences.”—Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, fellow at Brookings Institution, Center for Technology Innovation

In addition to these virtual experiences, 5G’s faster data speeds can mean more meaningful integration of the Internet of Things (IoT) into the classroom. “The advent of 5G for schools that are connected will allow for enhanced connectivity for applications that go beyond a computer, but begin to expand into IoT,” says Erin Mote, co-founder of the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and an expert in education technology. “Imagine next-generation connectivity for your Lego robot or other enhanced learning experiences.”

“The advent of 5G for schools that are connected will allow for enhanced connectivity for applications that go beyond a computer, but begin to expand into IoT.”—Erin Mote, co-founder of the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and education technology expert

That “next-generation connectivity” is, according to experts, only possible through 5G as 4G simply cannot handle the 20.4 billion connected devices Gartner predicts by 2020.

Personalizing Learning

In the U.S., 48 states and the District of Columbia currently support online learning opportunities that range from supplementing classroom instruction on an occasional basis to enrolling students in full-time programs. For many in the education tech realm, 5G will allow for even more mobile access to internet-based educational content, which can be used to reinforce student learning, and potentially supply and engage disenfranchised children with those materials.

“More and more learning is starting to shift to mobile learning right now, independent of the rise of 5G,” says Michael Horn, who speaks and writes about the future of education. “5G represents an important sustaining innovation that could allow mobile learning to improve and serve more people with rich and varied experiences that enhance their educational opportunities relative to what they have today.”

Some, including Mote, believe this could lead to a somewhat more personalized approach to learning. “As we become more connected and systems can respond to our inputs in real time through enhanced connectivity, students will actually demand that their education feels more like their after-school experience with Tynker or other learning games than what it feels like today,” she says. “Those of us in education know that we must reimagine and rethink the way we are preparing young people for what the world [demands] of them. I would imagine that looks like a more personalized experience.”

Horn builds upon this idea. “5G will be yet another tool that further allows us to personalize learning for all students, as it represents yet another avenue to affordably reach more learners in different ways that can aid them in their own unique learning journey.”

“5G will be yet another tool that further allows us to personalize learning for all students…”—Michael Horn, author and education expert

Closing the Homework Gap

Education and technology experts alike believe that 5G may be the answer to furthering the availability of technology and closing the so-called homework gap— a phrase used to encompass the missed assignments by students who lack access to technology or the internet outside of school.

“This disproportionately affects communities of color,” Mote says, as studies have found that infrastructure for internet access is most often built in more affluent and more white communities. She points out that 5G could present an opportunity to help schools and districts close the homework gap by boosting mobile learning. “The advent of 5G on mobile devices can help close that gap as students can begin to use faster, more reliable mobile-based connections to complete an assignment … rather than a terrestrial connection.”

Mote also points to 5G’s use of smaller towers to connect densely-populated areas such as larger cities with greater redundancy and capacity. “While this won’t solve the last mile problem that remains for some of our most remote schools, it could allow for better connections and more connection in a smaller, more concentrated area,” she says.

Turner-Lee agrees. She’s hopeful 5G will help historically disadvantaged schools grow access to applications that require high-bandwidth connections that are not currently available or consistent in lower-income neighborhoods.

“5G will enable platforms that can tailor lessons to the student’s pace and style of learning…”—Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, fellow at Brookings Institution, Center for Technology Innovation

“5G will enable platforms that can tailor lessons to the student’s pace and style of learning, and capture more data about the factors that boost her performance with every lesson,” she says, adding, “For students of color from less privileged schools, these tools can make a marked difference in educational outcomes.”