'5G will accelerate digital transformation in education' - KCOM boss talks teaching

(Image credit: © KCOM NNS)

From home life to the workplace, our lives are becoming increasingly reliant on our digital network access. 5G technology will revolutionise the way connectivity is delivered, bringing many existing network services together and making what once seemed impossible, possible. For the education sector, 5G will bring significant changes in the way lessons and lectures are delivered in schools and universities, as well as enabling off-site access to resources and data to make research and learning more collaborative. With these advancements comes increased expectations from students, teachers and parents for improved services and a seamless user experience, driving all institutions to make 5G-powered education a success.

The Potential

Much of the hype around the rollout of 5G is about big data and increased capabilities for analysis. With high volumes of data now generated, collected and stored across campus, 5G connectivity gives higher education institutions the opportunity to improve ways of working to increase efficiency and productivity in all operational areas from office administration through to teaching.

A simple example of this is the ability to monitor students taking online modules and exams by the criteria ‘time to complete’. Teachers can use this data to quickly identify where students across the course are taking longer than average to complete certain questions, or getting lower than average marks on certain sections. This insight enables teachers to review teaching methods for those particular areas or evaluate performance against previous years to generate a more in-depth analysis of individual students, teaching staff and of the institution as a whole.

The  full impact that digital transformation will have on education is really only limited by imagination. However, staff capabilities across the education sector will need to keep pace with evolving processes. The government’s Commission on Assessment without Levels report recommended schools should collect as much data as possible, but a key finding was that the majority of teaching staff reported data entry as the biggest burden of their role. If education is to flourish in the way that 5G will allow it to, there needs to be sufficient support and training for staff and students to ensure the benefits of new technologies can be fully realised.

The Reality

The push towards digital transformation has already had an unprecedented impact on the education sector. These changes are not only ongoing, but also accelerating. Education providers have been well-placed to take advantage of new technologies and in many cases have been early adopters of new technologies being introduced into the sector that will truly transform learning experiences.

Adoption of the cloud has levelled the playing field for access to education. Centralised information repositories like cloud storage and online modules allow students to access information securely from any location. This gives both students and teachers much greater flexibility regarding when and where they can work, enabling them to balance other aspects of life such as work and family. Furthermore, storing digital copies of student work in the cloud means tracking progress between classes, year groups and key stages is much more efficient for teachers and parents, allowing them to more easily assess areas that are improving or need attention. Cloud-enabled interactive teaching materials have driven a more collaborative working environment and ensure that students are getting the most out of teaching time, ultimately resulting in the educational institution offering a better quality experience.

However, the timeframe for the 5G rollout is currently the cause of some debate - its widespread implementation may not be possible at least until 2020 according to recent government schedules. Moreover, as it currently stands, 5G will not be available in all areas across the UK until at least 2025, by which time the Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) forecasts that 5G will still only have reached 14 percent of the global market.

The UK infrastructure is not yet ready for the industry-wide implementation of 5G and the significantly larger amounts of data it will host. There are still communities in rural areas struggling to access the 4G network that came into play in 2013 - a clear testament to the lack of consistency in the UK when it comes to network connectivity. Many institutions find gaining access to robust networks a significant challenge and this lack of consistency has a significant impact on how the curriculum is taught in schools with varying network availability. Beyond the school gates, lack of connectivity is not just affecting schools, but entire communities -  the connectivity students have available at home can often be worse than they experience in school. Until reliable and fast connectivity is widely available to every school and home, the true impact of 5G on education will not be tangible to all.

"Despite 5G not being ubiquitous just yet, it is clear that it’s set to transform the education sector for the better."

Iain Shearman, MD at KCOM NNS

Security considerations

It’s also important to remember that as 5G paves the way for increased connectivity, vulnerability to cyberattacks will also increase. One of the concerns raised most frequently by institutions is the feeling of a lack of control when using service providers rather than implementing the services themselves. The shift to a managed services setup rather than hardware maintenance requires a different skill set among in-house IT teams. Changes in technology usage require IT departments to change their perspective on the buying process - instead of questioning hardware failure rates and fix-times, it’s now about ensuring that the service level agreements and contracts are fit for purpose. Service providers have a duty to inform their customers and to ensure they feel comfortable with all parts of the service, including alleviating cybersecurity concerns by ensuring robust measures are tailored to each institution's individual needs. A provider that does this successfully will relieve pressure on the IT department and be a reliable point of contact for any queries or concerns.

Security and compliance is a prevalent risk and it’s important that only authorised people are able to access the relevant data. GDPR laws mean that everyone, including students, has the right to access their own personal data, known as ‘subject access requests’. Many institutions are still choosing to store pupil and staff data in paper form, which not only makes requests for access extremely time consuming to fulfil, but also leaves data vulnerable at risk of getting into the wrong hands. Schools are not exempt from GDPR regulations, so storing all personal data within a secure cloud system is a way to ensure data is safe whilst also being easily accessible on request.

And whilst cloud services have become an important aspect of many institutions’ IT infrastructure, the education sector should not treat them as the ‘silver bullet’ to end all of their data storage woes. Public clouds have huge scalability and resilience, but it is critical that decision makers use them in conjunction with other essential parts of the IT mix, and adopt robust disaster recovery processes to mitigate the risk of huge amounts of confidential personal data being lost as a result of outages or other issues.

There is no doubt that digital transformation as a result of growing 5G network coverage will impact on everyone, as gradual adoption of new technologies takes place within schools, colleges and universities. By laying the right foundations, the introduction of these new ways of engaging, working and monitoring students, staff and communities will transform how institutions deliver learning and training for all. Despite 5G not being ubiquitous just yet, it is clear that it’s set to transform the education sector for the better.

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Iain Shearman

Iain Shearman is MD at KCOM NNS. Shearman leads KCOM’s National Network Services (KCOM NNS) bringing more than 20 years’ telecommunications experience to the team. Shearman is committed to working with businesses to help them adopt innovative technologies that support their organisation’s vision and growth aspirations, and helping them to deliver more for their customers. Shearman believes that customer experience is at the heart of the KCOM offer and technology has the power to unlock hidden capability in any business.