5G and XR Will Change Higher-ed Forever

5G and extended reality will combine to upend higher education and learning in ways that are only now coming into focus.
January 18, 2022
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Although public ultra-fast, millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G networks aren’t yet common, all of the technology needed to deploy them is available today. Institutions of higher learning in particular don’t have to wait for widespread publicly available 5G networks. They can build out private 5G campus networks themselves.

When 5G is combined with the immersive technologies of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), which make up extended reality (XR), it will be transformative to a learning environment. Today’s students learn much the way they also have through lectures, books, and hands-on labs. High-speed networking and XR will expand the 2D learning experience of the past into an interactive 3D (or 4D) digital world that is only seen in movies like Iron Man today.

Instead of being tethered to facilities with WiFi or putting up with slow upload and download speeds of 4G LTE, 5G also will free up students to learn from anywhere. Universities can use 5G’s high speeds and low-latencies to add new services, remove redundant networks (many universities have separate networks for infrastructure, research, students, and other uses), monitor facilities and physical plants using sensors, attract 5G research dollars, and streamline operations.

When it comes to their physical infrastructure and operations, universities are often slow to change. This makes sense. New facilities are expensive and if the student learning hasn’t changed very much, why should the buildings they learn in? 

Networking infrastructure, for example, isn’t a strategic differentiator from one college to the next. That will change as the learning experience changes. With the adoption of advanced technologies like extended reality (XR), networking will have to improve to support it. 5G is the logical choice.

What is XR?

Each of the technologies that make up XR has been around for a long time. But with each new advancement in chip technology, storage densities, form factor (e.g., HD screens, headsets, and other wearables), networking speeds, and bandwidth improvements, they are maturing rapidly.

Virtual reality requires users to wear headsets and AR simply overlays images and information onto the real world using glasses or screens. These are great technologies for certain use cases but when combined in MR, you get a much more powerful experience.

Mixed reality enables users to actually interact directly with both the virtual and real worlds at the same time. (Think Minority Report meets Iron Man.)

The extension of learning

The combination of 5G and XR will allow students to learn interactively in a digital universe from wherever they are. Medical students can work on virtual patients, lecturers can conduct interactive talks virtually, breaking down the dual barriers of location and time–a huge benefit for the nation’s millions of commuter students who can’t attend lectures in-person.

Mobility is one of the key benefits of 5G. Uncoupling the learning experience by allowing students to learn from anywhere will have major benefits that are only now being explored.

But it’s more than just freedom. The gigabit speeds and super-low latencies of 5G can change how students learn and teachers teach. 

Game theory, for example, can be applied to fundamentally change how information is exchanged and absorbed. When people learn through game-play, for example, they are much more willing to fail and fail more often without becoming discouraged. In fact, they become more determined to succeed.

Expanding research opportunities

The industrial sector is very interested in the internet of things (IoT) technologies to improve operations. From free-ranging cobots that work alongside humans to mimicking and manipulating real-world processes in real time using digital twins, ultra-fast, reliable networking is key to transmitting the telemetry data these machines and sensors generate. 

With 5G, universities will be able to attract more research dollars from industry to explore how 5G can be applied to increase efficiencies, improve product quality, reduce defective products, save time, use raw materials more wisely, and a host of other benefits derived from the system-wide transparency IoT sensors create.

Enhancing 5G with WiFi 6

Even though 5G may be the most significant advancement of networking technology since the introduction of WiFi, it can’t do it all. 

There are 3 flavors of 5G. Millimeter wave (mmWave) is the one everyone is so excited about. There also are low-band and mid-band 5G networks but they don’t have the blazing speeds near zero-latencies of mmWave. These other 5G networks, while not as fast as mmWave, are still better than 4G LTE and can penetrate buildings and other obstructions that mmWave cannot.

When WiFi is coupled with the gigabit speeds, high-device densities, and low-latency of the next generation of WiFi, WiFi 6, (a.k.a., 802.11ax), it will provide students with continuous connectivity so they won’t have to network hop as they move around campus. 

Amazing technological advancements are so commonplace today people have become somewhat immune to them. mmWave 5G will be different. Like the internet, smartphone, and the cloud before it, 5G will bring a whole new way for people to interact with the world. And that will be game-changing for how people learn.

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