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The Speedy Future of Delivering Online Learning: 5G-10G Confusion and Potential

As we continue to advance online services to distant students, bandwidth becomes ever more important. Virtual laboratories are beginning to take advantage of virtual reality, augmented reality and an assortment of associated technologies that rely on highly sophisticated networking.

November 19, 2020
 

This past spring semester marked a massive response to the coronavirus that prompted a change in the mode of delivery of higher education that will continue to influence the way learning is accessed from this point forward. Online learning has moved from the periphery to the core of the delivery of the curriculum. It is not going away -- there will be no all-encompassing return to campus. For sure, the campus will endure, but in a reduced and altered form. The affordances and resilience of online delivery in this pandemic have permanently embedded online distance education as the advancing partner in the mode of delivery of learning.

As Judith Altschuler Cahn, director of the Department of Online Education and Support at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNY, writes, student-centeredness is an essential value of the online approach. “The online modality can present in different formats, synchronous and asynchronous, as well as a combination of the two. As instructors make the transition to online, it is an opportunity for them to reassess their syllabi and teaching plans to better meet student needs, and emphasize a more student-centered approach.”

The pedagogies, reach and benefits of online learning are many. The potential to reach students around the world is enormous. Yet, access to affordable and robust broadband has previously limited the expansion of online learning. Now, the Starlink satellite service has begun to reach rural residents in otherwise underserved areas of Montana and Idaho with truly high-speed broadband. While access to robust broadband services in this country continues to expand rapidly, much remains to be done around the world. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is calling upon the United Nations to make digital education a “sustainable goal.” In their recent international survey, the ACU reported “that 83% of respondents from high-income countries had access to broadband, while 63% of those from upper middle-income countries, and 38% drawn from lower middle-income countries could access the same. It got worse in low-income countries, many from Africa, where only 19% of the interviewees said they had access to broadband.” The divide split along Northern and Southern Hemisphere lines.

In the United States, advancement has been driven by fierce competition, not only among wireless providers, but also the large interests in cable and satellite-delivery systems. This competition has served to keep access costs down while promoting innovation. Yet, to date, inherent technical limitations -- notably latency (the delay in data transfer) -- have limited features that are available on the hard-wired campus. This, too, is about to change.

We are poised at the beginning of an exciting new era in low-latency, high-bandwidth networking that will enable awesome interactions, 3-D displays and incredibly rich data collection. We have seen it in the advertising. Some of us are experiencing it, given the right wireless provider, smartphones and proximity to transmission point -- 5G is spreading rapidly across the country and in other countries. South Korea, China and the United States are the countries in the lead in deploying 5G, with the U.K. and Australia among others that are close behind. Five G has the potential to replace Wi-Fi in many applications, perhaps even on campuses. A 10-gigabits-per-second potential and a latency down to one or two milliseconds sounds great. Thales provides a good graphic site that makes the comparison of 5G to 4G to give you a good indication of the difference of change in generations from that which most mobile phones use to connect (4G) versus the innovative new generation (5G). However, field experiences of 5G have, on average, resulted in somewhat lesser performance, as seen in this Tech Radar update.

But, as some of you may be asking, what about 10G? This is the source of some confusion worldwide. The name itself seems to imply that it is twice as good as 5G. But 10G is not a wireless technology at all; it is the term that cable providers promise for 10 gigabits per second of data connection.

The 10G also promises one- or two-millisecond latency. That is a big deal in both 5G and 10G because very low latency, or delay in data responses, enables the delivery and control of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and a host of Internet of Things (IoT) applications. When the bandwidth is available with negligible latency, applications will become readily available to change our work practices and life at home. Most notably, this will enable interactive 3-D simulations, including science labs and other instruction that had been considered only possible in person and hands-on.

How are you preparing to integrate these new potentials into the delivery of your curriculum? Is your institution equipped to incorporate the high-bandwidth, low-latency technology into the delivery of simulations and laboratories at a distance? Will you roll these out in the spring or fall term of 2021? Others will.

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