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Role of Telcos in the future of education

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the changing education industry and a sudden increase in the digitization of the delivery of learning to students around the world. In fact, 33% of post-secondary school administrators in the US indicate they will continue to offer both remote and online course options even after their campuses have reopened and normal operations resume! (Distance Learning Statistics [2021]: Online Education Trends, 2021).

We have become familiarised with the multiple platforms available to students to forge a connection between students and teachers. According to Microsoft, more than 230,000 education institutes are using Teams for remote or hybrid learning. Education institutions have placed a lot of effort in making these resources useful to improve the quality of online education, making it a sustainable and functional substitute to face-to-face learning. However, the responsibility of communication operators in the delivery of online education needs answers.

Figure 1 – Online Remote 3000 colleges in the US. Fall 2020 [1]

Source: (Coronavirus and Students Survey, 2020)

The data above shows the immense scale and impact of online learning, as 96% of the 3000 US colleges surveyed used digital platforms to some extent during the fall 2020 semester. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey of 2018[2], 77% of students in urban households have full access compared to 63% in non-metro/rural areas. Children whose parents possess advanced degrees have the most access (91%). This means that 37% of students living in rural areas do not have full access to the digital resources they need.

Furthermore, the UK’s National Union of Students new report[3] suggests that 1 in 5 students in the UK do not have any access to online learning. From this data we can conclude that there are three main challenges that students face accessing their education online:

1. Connectivity to access learning materials

A major reason why students struggle to access the educational content they need to complete their studies is because they lack the connectivity necessary for a good educational experience. Whether students have no access to the internet whatsoever or have frequently interrupted service, having good connectivity is vital to ensure that students remain engaged and reduce frustration during their online experience.

Where wired broadband is inaccessible, a wireless cellular network is another option. If cellular networks are unavailable, Telcos can use satellite networks to ensure that students and teachers everywhere have access. Telecom operators need to use their universal service fund to allow this connectivity to happen. 5G will have an important role to play in creating a seamless and productive environment for students and teachers. What steps can Telcos take to ensure that network connectivity should not be an issue?

2. Access to digital devices and resources

Furthermore, where connectivity isn’t an issue, limited access to digital devices or resources can be another shortfall resulting in students not being fully immersed in their educational experience. Not every student can afford or have access to the digital tools which would give them access to all the educational resources they need. There are two ways that telecom operators can address this issue. Firstly, they can work together with technology companies to create affordable and easy access to the physical tools students need to access their classes. On the other hand, Telcos can work together with the education boards to explore how they can make content accessible, even on the most limited and affordable devices available. Is it possible for students to participate in their classes from just their mobile phones? What other technologies such as radio, can be put to use to allow teachers to engage with students who have no access to devices beyond their budget?

3. The absence of physical interaction and social experience

Another factor that causes significant unhappiness for students and teachers alike, is the lack of the social aspect of education. The missing physical interaction and communication between students and their peers is a significant factor affecting the mental health of students, causing significant unhappiness. Many university students have not been able to attend physical classes, especially those pursuing education abroad. Many of these students have never met their peers or teachers in person and have an entirely digital relationship. Furthermore, other factors such as timezone differences, limited workspace, and of course the well-being aspects of being in a lockdown also have a prominent impact on their university experience.

How can Telcos work together with technology companies and education boards to give students a better digital learning experience? Can they use technology such as artificial intelligence, and explore and develop platforms such as Microsoft Teams, and Zoom to elevate this experience? Microsoft has already updated Teams with new SEL (social-emotional learning) tools to develop the social skills of students which are often not a primary focus of online learning. How can human-centred design be used to ensure that this social-emotional learning can also be developed for mature students, allowing them to gain the full university experience they deserve?

Addressing these three issues are vital to ensure the sustainability of online learning. Telcos need to invest time and money, as they have the capability and responsibility of ensuring that a student anywhere in the world, can fulfil their right to education. Not only is this relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the development of this infrastructure can help make significant progress to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Education is at the forefront of change and it is imperative to improve access to the 258 million children [4] without. Poverty should not be a reason to exclude them from the education they deserve. The pandemic revealed the possibilities of online learning, and how physical access to resources should not limit their access to education. This effort into digitisation can prove to be a great asset when thinking about the future of education.


Sources:

[1] Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates during the COVID-19 Pandemic. (2021). [Ebook]. Retrieved 22 June 2021, from https://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ELE_CoBrand_DP_FINAL_3.pdf.

[2] Hanson, M. (2021). Distance Learning Statistics [2021]: Online Education Trends. EducationData. Retrieved 22 June 2021, from https://educationdata.org/online-education-statistics.

[3] National Union for Students. (2020). Coronavirus and Students Survey [Ebook]. Retrieved 22 June 2021, from https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/covid-19-and-students-survey-report.

[4] Out-of-School Children and Youth | UNESCO UIS. Uis.unesco.org. (2021). Retrieved 22 June 2021, from http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/out-school-children-and-youth.