The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted wider adoption of online education tools and platforms. Digital tools allow schools and colleges to maintain continuity in learning while in-person classroom experiences are on hold. Schools and colleges are now using platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet to conduct classes. A growing number of students have started taking classes from several online learning platforms, including BYJU’S, Vedantu, Toppr, and Meritnation, among others.

Even before Covid-19, India was reported to be the second largest market for e-learning. Online learning has the potential to transform India’s classrooms and prepare students for the 21st century. In fact, the Indian education sector is expected to reach $1.96 billion by 2021, with around 9.5 million users according to India Brand Equity Foundation.

For students to truly benefit from online learning, the experience they have needs to be seamless, immersive, and reliable. This requires that the underlying network should be adaptable and robust.

Learning at home is the new norm

It is unlikely that online education will completely replace the traditional teaching method once the social distancing norms are relaxed. Even so, virtual learning is likely to be more widely accepted in the post-Covid-19 era.

Government initiatives are also driving the use of online education platforms. As part of the PM eVIDYA programme, the top 100 institutions in India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework have been allowed to offer online degree courses. It also includes the Diksha programme, which involves e-content and QR-coded textbooks for all grades under the ‘One Nation, One Digital Platform’. Online education promises to make learning more inclusive and potentially can provide access to modern teaching even to students in remote areas.

Connecting educators and students

Ubiquitous and dependable connectivity is a prerequisite to enable students to fully leverage the potential of online education. Reliable high-speed connectivity is critical to the success of the country’s online education initiatives. Students can’t stay engaged or meet critical deadlines if they are trying to watch a video that won’t load or struggle with submitting papers via cloud applications. There is also a need to expand Internet coverage to remote areas to bridge the connectivity gap, as nearly 50% of the country’s population still lacks access to the Internet, according to the ‘Digital in India’ report published by IAMAI in 2019.

Networks providing high-speed connectivity with extremely low latency between students, teachers, and administrators is the foundation of online learning. Network congestion, high latency or frequent outages can lead to lost instruction time and impacts the experience, which demotivates and frustrates students.

Why networks are crucial to fulfilling learning experiences

A programmable network is needed to address the growing requirements of online education. A network, enabled by new technologies such as virtualisation and artificial intelligence (AI), provides a more reliable and better learning experience.

The new-age technologies can handle a sudden surge in bandwidth consumption without any impact on the network experience. Further, they ensure that the latency continues to remain low for quality network experience.

Networks should be designed to allow educational institutes to scale quickly and easily as the usage and the number of students rises. The bandwidth requirements are likely to grow as education technology applications continue to evolve.

New immersive experiences rely on connectivity

As users become comfortable with online platforms, the use of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technology will increase to enhance the learning experience and explain complex concepts. Further, learning through AR-based games and VR-powered immersive reality can help in more effective learning and improved knowledge retention. For instance, a VR-enabled visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington promises to be a stimulating experience to understand the role of dinosaurs in our history.

Cloud-based AR/VR require high bandwidth and latency of less than 10 milliseconds. To support these next-generation applications, service providers should consider preparing the networks to handle these bandwidth-intensive experiences.

Students increasingly rely on tablets and mobile devices to access classes, homework assignments, and collaboration with other students. Therefore, a low latency network is increasingly essential so learning can be accessible and seamless.

When minutes before a test deadline means the difference between a high score or a low score, service providers can use AI to anticipate network problems and address them before they impact the user. A software-driven approach is the key to unlocking the network’s potential.

As we increasingly rely on remote education, especially heading into the back-to-school season, the network is the lynchpin connecting teachers with students learning online. Service providers should consider upgrading their networks to support online learners and educators today and into the future with the best possible digital experience. It will play a crucial role in bridging digital inclusion, as envisioned by the government’s ambitious Digital India initiative.

Views are personal. The author is chairman and president, Ciena India.

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