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A recent study found a 76-per-cent increase in learning outcomes when students used a VR simulation and a 101-per-cent increase when they used it in combination with traditional teaching.LightFieldStudios/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Canada’s education system needs a transformation, and experts say 5G technology – with its increased speed and reliability – could help make it happen more quickly.

“I think education needs to be disrupted, a little bit of creative destruction,” says Ryan McLaughlin, a senior economist and research analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council of Canada (ICTC).

5G will help power transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) that are changing our economy, including how we learn. The COVID-19 public health crisis has forced educators to set up digital classrooms, exposing some of the shortfalls in today’s technology that will be more heavily relied on in the future.

AR and VR require higher bandwidth, lower latency and network resiliency, says Ashutosh Dutta, co-chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 5G Initiative and a senior wireless research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

In other words, they need 5G.

“It’s going to be helpful for not only education but robotics at home, intelligent transportation systems, e-health, smart wearables, etc.,” Dr. Dutta says.

The integration of technology in the classroom is key to equipping students for success, according to a new ICTC report. The report, which looks at the impact of technology on education in Canada, says AI changes how students learn and can help those with challenges such as anxiety or difficulty maintaining attention. It also says AI and machine learning can be used to personalize curricula for students based on their progress and individual interactions with different lessons.

“The experiences it can provide – such as virtually witnessing endangered species of plant life in Madagascar – can ultimately change the way students think, engage with the world and tackle problems,” the report states.

It cites one recent study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, which found a 76-per-cent increase in learning outcomes when students used a VR simulation and a 101-per-cent increase when they used it in combination with traditional teaching.

AR and VR technologies are being used in innovative ways around the world, particularly in the European Union, says Nathan Snider, manager of policy and outreach at ICTC.

“But that conversation is not really taking place in Canada,” says Mr. Snider, one of the authors of the ICTC report. “We don’t even have the infrastructure of 5G in place yet, which means that if you think about how small- to medium-sized tech entrepreneurs, they don’t even have the sandbox in Canada right now to really work effectively in that space and develop new technologies.”

The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some educators and students to fast-track the transition, while at the same time exposing the current patchwork of approaches and preparedness.

“There are some successes and some failures,” Mr. Snider says, noting that each province has a different educational system and curriculum. Some have incorporated innovative technologies, yet it varies widely between school districts.

“Before, we had the luxury to debate whether a blended-learning environment or an e-learning environment was of value to the students,” he says. “We don’t have that luxury anymore. COVID-19 has shown us that it’s more than time for us to consider new opportunities and new ways of learning.”

Students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are learning at the school’s 5G Hub, a three-year, multimillion-dollar partnership deal with Rogers Communications. The project, which kicked off last year, has been described as a “testbed and blueprint for 5G innovation” in Canada.

“We don’t just do the research. We train people through that research,” says David Michelson, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC and the 5G Hub project lead. “It’s one thing to talk in abstract terms about something; it’s quite another thing to actually experience it.”

The work is in its early stages, Dr. Michelson says. And while applications such as earthquake detection and connected vehicles are a big part of the 5G Hub project, he says UBC is mindful of the opportunities to enhance education.

“5G certainly gives us the tools in terms of the increased capacity, the lower latency, the improved performance," he says, which has many implications for education.

“It’s a lot different being immersed in it rather than just looking at it on a laptop screen, for example.”

At first, 5G will look a lot like a better, faster 4G, Dr. Michelson says. But it will reach a “flipping point,” when people realize its capabilities.

“You can do things that you couldn’t even think about doing before, things like virtual reality and augmented reality."

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