Designing and developing a learner-centred digital campus has been a goal of HE and FE technologists for years.
Now, with the imminent commercial arrival of 5G, the time is ripe for curriculum experts and technologists to work together to plan how hyper-connected devices can transform the campus of the future.
As a low latency mobile network technology many times faster than long-term evolution (LTE), 5G is heralded as the enabler of the Internet of Things.
"While 2G was about voice, 3G gave us data and 4G made video an absolute pleasure, 5G is about things.
“It’s about connecting things, bringing the Internet of Things alive with massive machine-type communication. It will do previous things better, but it’s an enabler for the fourth industrial revolution.”
How you can benefit from 5G
So what do Jisc member organisations – many of whom already benefit from eduroam, offering reliable wireless LAN access in multiple campus locations – need to know about 5G?
It seems we're only just starting to explore how staff and students can benefit in practice from high-data-rate applications and the Internet of Things.
Remote learners, for example, might benefit from the experience of tactile responses over a low-latency 5G network. This could have implications for courses involving manual tasks or muscle memory – from robotics or medical training to the creative arts.
5G could enable learning through virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), suggests Sutton – for example, allowing students to virtually attend lectures from academics all over the world or even go on virtual visits to major museums.
"We’re always keen to organise industry days, where you can take students to a real-world environment and let them see how study is applied.
"Nothing beats visiting these places and seeing them, but there’s only so much you can do. If a student wants to spend time outside of a formal visit, or ‘walk around’ that factory or lab and find out more, how can they do that? We could build applications in VR or AR. We’d need a very high data rate and relatively low latency.”
Increased access for remote learners
There could also be opportunities to increase access to learning – whether by allowing people to study from globally remote locations or by using cloud-based apps that support inclusivity, perhaps using robotics.
Or UK students and staff could access cloud-based resources and VLEs reliably and securely from a wider range of locations – potentially useful for courses involving any kind of outdoor study, from earth sciences to sports science to veterinary medicine.
With the ability to carry more data on learning platforms, moreover, comes the ability to personalise learning further, to meet individual student interests and needs.
A much-vaunted benefit of 5G is not just that it will offer faster mobile broadband and help enable the Internet of Things – but that, thanks to the advantages of “network slicing”, it allows operators to optimise virtual network for multiple use cases, with different “slices” meeting the needs of different users at the same time.
This might be of value to HE technologists who have specific demands for a low-latency, highly secure, highly available network.
In the fullness of time, suggests Sutton – whose research at Salford focuses on the propagation characteristics of millimetre wave radio for 5G backhaul applications – universities might deploy private 5G networks in licence-exempt spectrum for applied research.
This might follow the example of MulteFire, which today operates in the LTE space.
In the meantime, 5G brings HE organisations the immediate opportunity to support research into technologies such as robotics, remote haptic feedback and, of course, driverless cars.
How fast is 5G?
Theoretically, 5G is capable of reaching 20Gbps – but while such speeds are difficult to achieve beyond the testbed, the prospect of hugely faster mobile broadband speeds is still enough to be excited about, in urban locations at least.
Simulations by Qualcomm in San Francisco and Frankfurt found that median browsing download speeds were 1.4Gbps and 899Mbps for users accessing a network consisting of 5G co-sited with LTE macro and small cell sites. Compared to LTE alone, this meant that speeds increased by a factor of 20 and five, respectively.
The government has already invested £16m in 5GUK – a collaborative project between the University of Surrey, King’s College London and the University of Bristol – to develop three connected 5G test networks, and the three universities duly showed off their achievements at Mobile World Congress in 2018.
Late last year, the government also held a competition for £25m to invest in 5G testbeds and trials – to create a “5G ecosystem” and develop use cases.
As far as education is concerned, the time to start planning is now. By 2020, says Sutton, commercial 5G networks should be in operation – while, according to mobile company Ericsson, there will be one billion 5G subscriptions by 2023.
Above all, technologists and curriculum experts need to get talking about the possibilities.
“We need to take this technology and talk about it in medical schools, engineering colleges, in humanities, in tourism,”
“How do you engage all the different faculties, to explain to them the technology and allow them to use their imagination to develop use cases?
“I’m enthusiastic about 5G – and we’re just starting to scratch the surface.”
Demonstrating low-latency 5G
At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2018, the University of Surrey, King’s College London and the University of Bristol showed off the world’s first 5G end-to-end network – with an apparently simple demonstration of a remotely controlled robotic foot stroking a football into a goal.
The kicker – if you can call it that – was that the robot was replicating the actions of an invited human player in another exhibition hall.
In education, one might imagine a lecturer in one room demonstrating anatomical movements or the effects of forces in physics – as students in different parts of the country, or the world, interact in real time.