The way we learn is changing

In years gone by, education took place solely in classrooms with teachers, pupils, whiteboards, pens, paper, homework and occasionally, much-dreaded exams. While all of this still exists, as we live longer and as technology advances, our needs for education – in all its forms – are increasing and elongating.

From a professional perspective, jobs for life have long been a thing of the past and many of us will need to re-invent ourselves and change careers many times. Our working lives are potentially set to extend to fifty years or more.

As technology enables further automation and advanced analytics, certain jobs may disappear from the workplace or be significantly changed. This will require employees to develop new, advanced skills throughout their careers to stay relevant and adapt.

From a consumer perspective, we have never had as much access to knowledge and skills through the internet. This has prompted many of us to take-up hobbies, develop new skills, and earn qualifications in our later lives. For example, the explosion of interest in shows such as the Great British Bake Off, The Great British Sewing Bee, and The Great Pottery Throw Down amongst others have inspired even the more mature generations to keep learning new skills.

From an academic perspective, the ubiquity of high-speed broadband and mobile connectivity, combined with new virtual learning platforms, creates the opportunity to deliver education to anyone, anywhere in the world. The ways in which we can all access and benefit from education are changing. Many are choosing to study online now, thanks to the numerous Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by leading universities, including the likes of Harvard University. Equally, learning on the job is now possible too, thanks to technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) goggles, which can give engineers real-time instructions on how to fix a machine on a production line, for example.

COVID-19 is accelerating remote learning

The outbreak of COVID-19 has globally affected education, meaning that nearly all universities, schools and colleges have temporarily closed their doors.

The closure of educational institutions is significant due to their substantial social and economic consequences, not least the inconvenience they cause for pupils, teachers and their families.

Here in the West Midlands – like the rest of the UK – primary schools for many young children are closed, and teachers are having to deliver their classes remotely over the internet.

Mia Liggins, a five-year-old pupil in Reception at Loxdale Primary School in Bilston has been doing some of her normal classwork from home, via her family’s tablet. When asked what it feels like going to school from home, Mia said: “Home doesn’t feel like school. I like being at home but I miss the playground. I like learning with the iPad at home – it’s fun.”

Her parents, who’ve seen the benefits of remote education first-hand, added: “It’s helpful having online lessons delivered to her. The classes are filled with daily activities, which we would like to continue once Mia is back at school post lockdown. Now we have discovered online resources, we feel we can unlock more for Mia to do from home and away from the classroom.”

A West Midlands headteacher whose school has been investing heavily in IT platforms to enhance learning over the last two years had previously only taken advantage of connectivity to set homework. Now, the COVID-19 outbreak has hastened the process of enabling school work from home and expanding access to parents – which was already planned but has now been accelerated due to the situation.

Access remains the biggest challenge, however. There is a digital divide between disadvantaged and more privileged children. Some families may only have one device, which they are having to share as parents work from home – this is also problematic.

Staff meetings are being conducted over Microsoft Teams for the very first time – as are professional development meetings and interviews, allowing for the continuation of staff training and recruitment.

However, even when lockdown ends, there will still be a need for some pupils to learn online. This situation has presented a wealth of opportunity for young people and we should embrace the changes, whilst always being mindful of safeguarding. The youth of today are at an advantage digitally and this new way of learning suits many of them.

While it’s clear that online learning experiences can enhance a pupil’s studies, remote education may well become the new normal for students across the country for quite some time. No longer is technology innovation an enhancer to education – but a necessity.

For those in more traditional education, such as university, adult learning via online methods that allow people to learn at their own pace may well also become the new normal. This was reinforced this week as the Government warned university students in England that they will still be subject to full tuition fees in the event that their courses are taught online later this year.

The idea of blending education – the combination of online educational materials and interactions with traditional classroom-based teaching – is likely to no longer be an ‘add-on’ or alternative to conventional, full-time courses – but a reality.

Connectivity is crucial to educating remotely

The ability to learn remotely is underpinned by a strong, fast and reliable internet connection – something we take for granted in the modern age.

However, not every pupil has access to broadband or a smartphone at home. This could be due to several factors from poverty and deprivation to being based in a rural area where good connectivity may be an issue.

The UK has a digital divide, which is a problem that needs to be addressed, particularly as remote education becomes more standardised.

Schools across the country have been proactive in identifying the crucial need for reliable connectivity. In Sunderland, Hudson Road Primary School had long been suffering from an unreliable connection, which restricted its pupils’ ability to have live streaming or video calling integrated into their lessons.

Sunderland City Council stepped in as part of its roll-out of ultrafast 5G to equip the youngsters with the digital skills they needed. By installing ultrafast 5G Wi-Fi connectivity with download speeds of 995Mbps, the connection pupils now have access to has had a 7,000% increase in speed, and this opens up a world of opportunities for them. Online training, Skype video calling and digital interaction with other schools are all now possible.

Hudson Road Primary School’s exciting plans for the future include using the network for educational games and both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to enhance teaching. A case study is available here. 

In the West Midlands, our Connected Map, is helping local authorities and mobile network operators see a clearer picture of the available assets suitable for digital infrastructure. In allowing both the operator and the council to work collaboratively, it is far easier to develop a business case for new, 5G infrastructure.

The societal benefits off the back of this will see more schools like Hudson Road Primary School receive a faster connection, improving pupils’ learning experience and giving them new skills for life.

5G technology can enhance education further

A recent study by Jisc, Vodafone and King’s College London looked closely at the relationship between 5G and education, outlining the art of the possible.

While the initial use for Virtual Reality (VR) was for entertainment purposes, according to the study, it also has “relevance in education and training, and will have a big role in providing quality education and improving understanding-based learning among students”. Crucially, VR can also support remote learning, “enabling the virtual presence of students in the classroom”.

Similar to VR, the paper outlines how “immersive [Augmented Reality] AR can enable new ways of learning and team working in education through services such as mobile cloud classroom and Virtual Presence. Enhancing the learning experience is not the only possible use for AR. It can also help teachers to get necessary information about each student and be aware of their particular needs and capabilities.”

For more classical subjects, such as music, we saw a great example from songwriter and musician Jamie Cullum last summer. He led the world’s first 5G music lesson from a piano in the Roman Amphitheatre in London. Meanwhile, amateur musicians in Bristol and Birmingham were playing along with Jamie, using 5G’s low-latency to connect them and their sound. Look at how it all worked, here.

5G technology can also help workers learn new skills for life. Training on the job in real-time is made possible over a 5G connection, connecting staff remotely with experts not stationed in the field. Not only does this enhance team members’ ability to learn, but it also drives efficiency and reduces travel costs.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has made this even more relevant, allowing remote experts to educate from a distance where travelling to site just isn’t possible. 5G is the enabler in allowing less-experienced staff to connect to central experts who in turn can provide advice and guidance. Notably, for the future the increased adoption of this technology will speed up the journey from learner to expert.

These are great examples of how 5G can help support anyone’s learning journey, in formal or informal education and training, across a variety of subjects, disciplines and interests.

The West Midlands leading the way

West Midlands 5G partnered with The Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to support the One Million Mentors scheme in conjunction with Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA) in Birmingham. Rhys Enfield, Head of Infrastructure Acceleration at West Midlands 5G, is one of twelve 5G specialists taking part providing mentoring to a group of forty 16-18-year-olds.

Rhys spends an hour each month building relationships and working with the young people of AUEA to showcase the art of the possible for 5G and the potential opportunities that could follow in the future. This is key to developing crucial skills for our upcoming generation.

On the programme, Rhys said: “I signed up for two key reasons. First, I have a real passion to give something back to the young people of the region as they are the future and we need to invest in them. Secondly, there are not enough young people taking up engineering roles and it is these kinds of jobs that will help sustain and grow the environment in which we live, making them the life blood of society and extremely important.”

“There are some excellent opportunities in the region for young people who are interested in 5G and what it can enable. Whether that be new infrastructure models, healthcare or social care improvements, improved transportation or gaming, to but a few.”

Recently, the Worcestershire 5G consortium also launched its latest Skills Report, titled ‘Gearing up our people to drive the power of 5G’. In the report, recommendations are made that address how to inspire the next generation workforce and how to get them excited about working in a 5G world. Read the full report here. 

Over the coming months, West Midlands 5G will also provide the opportunity for organisations to experiment and drive innovation using its new 5G application accelerators, known as 5PRING.

5PRING is here to accelerate 5G innovation and provide a place for organisations of all kinds to innovate, grow and thrive with 5G.

Organisations looking to test, prove and scale new 5G services – or those who would benefit from an introduction to 5G technology – should register their interest with 5PRING.