Making hybrid learning inclusive, immersive and equitable
With connectivity, devices, and the skills to use them, learners and teachers will have the tools, knowledge, and power to participate in new immersive and experiential learning experiences that are fit for the future regardless of their circumstance or location
Worldwide, children and adolescents were facing a learning crisis even before the onset of the global pandemic. Globally, over 600 million are unable to attain minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics
Next-generation connectivity can help deliver rich, high quality educational content to inspire school pupils wherever they’re located, affording unprecedented access to tuition, skills, resources, and experiences
Access to broadband can drastically improve learning outcomes, according to Doran Bogdan-Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, ITU
5G has the potential to diversify and democratize learning experiences, but Covid-19 has focused attention to a digital divide between those who have access to connectivity and the basic digital skills to use online devices, and those who do not
The longer young people are out of school, the less likely they are to catch up with age-appropriate learning objectives
Hybrid learning has the potential to transform the delivery of education, powering seamless collaboration and providing access to quality, engaging education for all
The biggest barriers to educational innovation are social, not technological. To achieve greater equity, issues of access, affordability, the availability of digital infrastructure and bandwidth, and digital proficiency must be resolved first.
For many, education is something that is often taken for granted.
However, learning loss due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education is a reality for hundreds of millions throughout the world, resulting in a discrepancy between what a student has learned and what they are expected to have understood by a certain point in their education.
The longer young people are out of school, the less likely they are to catch up with age-appropriate learning objectives. The longer-term consequences are dire for all those affected—young people, communities and societies—resulting in potential emotional trauma, vulnerability to poverty, poor nutrition and health, as well as weaker employment and income earning prospects.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 463 million children worldwide were unable to access remote learning owing to school closures in 2020 alone . The figures were staggering: According to UNICEF, school children around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours—and counting—of in-person learning since the onset of the virus, due to the lockdowns and imposed isolations.
During the pandemic, many students and teachers quickly established a blended learning setup, which seamlessly incorporated both in-person and remote participants, proving that effective learning can continue with minimal disruption—and can even be enhanced—in these circumstances.
However, a true hybrid learning approach is dependent on well-established digital networks and supportive remote learning policies, which provide the necessary flexibility and resilience to the education system. As such, the pandemic has also brought attention to the digital divide—the gap between those who have access to and the basic digital skills to use online devices, and those who do not—and its resulting impact on equity.
Case study: 5G-enabled robot empowers distance learning
With 5G access, Rasmus Dalsten, 13, was able to use a robot to engage in schooling during the pandemic, despite having a serious lung condition
For 13-year-old Rasmus Dalsten, from Denmark, who has a severe lung condition, the pandemic meant separation from the classroom, his friends, and teachers at school.
A trial began—a collaboration between Danish communications service provider, TDC Net, Danish robotics company Shape Robotics and Ericsson at the TDC/Ericsson 5G Innovation Hub in Denmark—to see how 5G could aid him.
A robot, powered by 5G, has allowed Rasmus to reconnect with his peers and follow the syllabus, with lightning-fast sounds and images that permit him to participate on the same terms as other students.
This feeling of being connected provides him with a sense of independence and the feeling of being physically present, breaking down new barriers—and old ones, too.
“This remote school application really shows the power of digitalization to address societal needs and is an excellent example of digital inclusion.”
Nicolas Backlund, Head of Ericsson Denmark
In September 2021, the Digital Learning Working Group of the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development launched a new report, titled Connecting Learning Spaces: Possibilities for Hybrid Learning. The report notes that hybrid learning has the potential to transform the delivery of education, powering seamless collaboration and providing access to quality, engaging education for all. For this reason, and despite many educational institutions reopening, the benefits of continuing to develop hybrid approaches to learning are endless.
A hybrid approach opens up the potential to extend access to basic education, non-formal/informal learning and social learning within communities. It also supports more innovative methods of teaching; offering customized and differentiated content; providing new opportunities for teachers’ professional development and training; and impacting on the costs of learning overall.
Technology's role in connected classrooms
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of Telecommunication Development Bureau, ITU, discusses just why connected education is so important.
So how can technology assist in bringing a new era of education for all? The Broadband Commission’s report underlines the importance of 5G, machine-based learning and cloud computing in particular. Through the next generation of networks, 5G can enable access to learning through any connected device. Greater bandwidth provides more stability and speed, enabling larger numbers of students to learn online, using multiple devices and a wider range of applications. Faster mobile internet speeds can also help us to reconsider how and where learning can occur, by supporting greater and more effective experiential (located, remote, and problem- and project-based) learning in the field, and on the job.
Case study: 5G learning in action
In a Welsh initiative, 5G allowed schoolchildren to use immersive learning beyond the classroom
5GWales Unlocked, a DCMS project, launched an innovative new programme to bring technology to the forefront of the classroom. The project, led by Welsh Government, worked with partners BT, Full3Sixty, and Cisco, to bring a 360-degree virtual learning experience to classrooms in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent, demonstrating how 5G can power immersive technology, helping create an enriching, educational environment alongside creative partners Jam Creative Studios.
Using BT’s 5G network, the classroom uses the high-speed connectivity to project an inspiring and educational video curriculum onto all four surrounding walls of the classroom, bringing the content to life. Nick Speed, Director, BT Group, says: “The immersive classroom is a brilliant example of how 5G’s greater bandwidth can help deliver rich, high-quality content to inspire school pupils about the world, wherever they’re located. It has the potential to reduce the education gap between areas and ensure that all pupils have access to this kind of innovative learning material.”
In addition to this, 5G has allowed for live link-ups (through the camera technology provided by Cisco) outside the classroom. AR experiences, delivered by Jam Creative Studios, have enabled learners to discover the fascinating history of heritage sites such as Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, with a live virtual tour from a Cadw custodian located at the site. They also created interactive content for the immersive classroom, with an animated robot guiding children through exploratory tasks to unlock clues about the castle’s history and then reveal its former glory.
Ellen Waite, the Digital Education Champion for the Ebbw Vale 5G 360 Immersive Environment, explains how “the Immersive Room offers the opportunity to step into places, roles, and experiences that were previously impossible. When asked to imagine what something is or was like, limited personal experiences can often make this virtually impossible for pupils.” The full list of partners involved can be found here.
“The 5G 360 Immersive Room is a way of engaging a whole group of learners, accessing VR together, giving a shared experience, teacher intervention, discussion, collaboration and encouraging a true understanding of situations.”
Ellen Waite, the Digital Education Champion for the Ebbw Vale 5G 360 Immersive Environment
Using AI to amplify the effects of hybrid learning
AI brings together computer science and robust data sets to enable problem-solving (and problem-setting), often performing tasks that typically require significant human effort and large investments in time and resources. Undoubtedly, AI has the potential to provide a more diverse range of learning experiences; however, machine-based learning has the potential to intelligently respond to students’ learning objectives and needs. For example, the latest software can also be used to provide real-time information on the relationship between teaching practice and student outcomes.
According to the Broadband Commission report, the transition from centralized cloud computing toward localized edge computing opens a variety of new learning and interaction possibilities. While the cloud is the central hub for data processing and analysis, edge computing is where processing and data analysis are enabled locally.
This could potentially foster a new culture of context-sensitive digital teaching methods and the development of customized applications suited to specific needs—a key requirement for more effective hybrid learning, as one size will not fit all. More broadly, it opens up new possibilities for learners to be supported by AI that monitors, manages, facilitates, and enhances learning, challenging traditional notions of what learning entails and the spaces in which it occurs, and creating possibilities for new teaching methods and approaches, configurations of teacher-student relationships, and teaching organization and practice.
When Ericsson deployed its cloud-based School Manager software, as part of its Connect To Learn program, it was able to monitor the number of students enrolled and what equipment was being used and shared. It also generated data on what material was being accessed, and more. This allowed content and teaching methods to be constantly improved and tailored to students’ needs.
Mamta Saikia, CEO of the Bharti Foundation, India, explores how children can access hybrid learning technology in rural areas.
However, the ability to exploit this transformational technology is limited without the right introduction and knowledge. For over 10 years, Ericsson has understood the importance of digital literacy for all and has been delivering upskilling initiatives globally through its Connect To Learn Program.
One such initiative was an engagement with educational institutions in Asia for teacher digital competence development. The program, delivered in 31 schools, provided access to VR equipment and course modules that teachers could use in their own time. These simulate the classroom environment and encourage them, through prompts, to diversify classroom activities and deliver lessons in a more student-centred and immersive way.
Mamta Saikia, CEO of the Bharti Foundation, on the future of hybrid learning
Considerations for a hybrid future
Reducing barriers to new system adoption and technology installation is an immediate challenge. These barriers include accessibility inequalities, affordability, the availability of the necessary digital infrastructure and bandwidth, student and teacher digital proficiency (including digital skills, privacy, and safety), and necessary changes to curriculums and syllabus plans. They all require careful consideration and—in many cases—collaborative public-private solutions.
The Broadband Commission’s report recommends five ways for improving educational access by digitalization.
5 report recommendations for improving educational access and delivery with digital technology
Solid investments, planning and collaboration between all concerned stakeholders is essential to ensuring all young people and adults, not just the most advantaged, can benefit from flexible models of learning now and for years to come. Funding is vital. Estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) suggest that USD 428 billion would be needed to achieve universal access to broadband connectivity globally by 2030, or USD 40 billion a year on average.
“Not only meaningful and affordable connectivity for all learners, but also a policy framework which guarantees that all learners, families, and communities are fully capable of benefiting from the affordances offered by technologies, while also ensuring their safety and privacy.”
Broadband Commission report, 2021
So what action is being taken? In 2019, UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union launched Giga, an ambitious initiative to connect every school to the internet to ensure that every young person has access to information, opportunity and choice.
According to Giga, the entity serves as “a platform to create the infrastructure necessary to provide digital connectivity to an entire country, for every community, and for every citizen. It is about using schools to identify demand for connectivity, as well as using schools as an analogy for learning and connecting where the community can come together and support its next generation in a world where we are all increasingly digital, where the skills that are required are not formal ones, necessarily, and where learning happens continuously.”
In August 2020, Ericsson partnered with UNICEF, to help support Project Connect—which aims to connect all schools to the internet by 2030. Ericsson is supporting UNICEF to better understanding where school connectivity is needed and is committed to supporting UNICEF in mapping school connectivity across 35 countries globally.
Since then, as part of the World Economic Forum Edison Alliance, Ericsson has also committed to provide one million children and youth with access to digital learning and skill development programs by 2025.
Beyond connectivity, UNICEF develops and implements digital learning solutions such as the Learning Passport (a Time 100 Best Invention winner) to reach the most marginalized. UNICEF also works with governments and partners to scale-up digital learning more equitably, and with communities, schools and teachers to ensure they are equipped with the skills and training to effectively leverage technology for learning and to reimagine education.
With connectivity, devices and the skills to use them, learners and teachers will have the knowledge and power to fully participate in a new learning experience that’s fit for the future.
A vision of 2030
5G has the potential to diversify and democratise learning experiences, but Covid-19 has focused attention to a digital divide between those who have access to connectivity and the basic digital skills to use online devices, and those who do not
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