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5G-enabled Virtual Labs — A New Era Begins in Experiential Learning

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By Rajiv Tandon, CEO, Work Integrated Learning Programmes (WILP) division of Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them,” said Aristotle, a philosopher, and polymath who lived in ancient Greece from 384 BC to 322 BC. From ancient times to modern times, many accomplished personalities in different fields and domains have advocated the power of “learning by doing,” which is also popularly referred to as “experiential learning.”

The theory vs practical dilemma in both formal education and corporate learning
The traditional education system is frequently criticized for not providing enough experiential learning opportunities to learners. While some of the better-resourced educational institutions and employers do make investments in creating relevant physical lab infrastructure at schools, colleges, or workplaces, it barely reaches a small proportion of the learner populace in our country.

In addition to the challenges related to access and capacity, the physical lab infrastructure can also be constrained by critical safety issues. Unsurprisingly, it is not highly uncommon that we hear or read accounts of some not-so-experienced employees or school or college students harming themselves and/or others while performing experiments inside a physical lab infrastructure or factory shop floor.

Providing high-quality experiential learning that is accessible to many and safe for learners has been a significant challenge for any learning ecosystem. Educators and Policymakers continue to struggle while deciding the extent to which experiential learning can be blended with theoretical learning to help the system produce graduates that don’t just know, but also “can do.”

Can “real world” experiences come from the virtual world?
New-age digital technologies combined with deep penetration of the broadband internet are unleashing exciting possibilities and new virtual worlds. While more and more digital applications are proliferating and providing rich virtual experiences, and helping people across many vocations, the education system is also beginning to explore many opportunities to elevate learning experiences for millions all over the world, using the twin forces of digital technologies and the internet.

One such “learning experience enhancer” element that is beginning to get adopted is called “virtual labs.” Progressive educational institutions and employers across the world and in India have increasingly begun to incorporate “virtual labs” in their endeavors to catapult the levels of experiential learning component, which enables learners to connect theory with practice across disciplines in a more effective manner.

For example, in electronics and electrical domains, virtual labs powered by licensed software, such as LabVIEW, Multisim, Matlab, and Proteus running on the cloud, enable the students to develop and test industry-standard designs. In the analytics space, a virtual analytics lab will host the relevant software and tools required to perform cutting-edge business analytics. This would enable learners to perform descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive analytics in areas of management, including finance, marketing, supply chain, and human resources. Similarly, a virtual finance lab, meanwhile, would capture real-time information on the financial markets, financial statements, and valuable business information of the industry. It would have the capability to host simulations and popular databases, helping learners undertake projects related to financial accounting, management accounting, corporate finance, derivatives trading, portfolio optimisation, equity research, behavioral finance, and FinTech, among others.

With 5G, a new era in experiential learning begins
At the India Mobile Congress (IMC) 2022, Narendra Modi, the honorable Prime Minister of India, officially inaugurated 5G services in India. Expected to be multiple times faster than 4G, the 5G connectivity could be the game-changing element for providing the highest quality and rich learning experiences. Going forward, 5G-enabled education could become the norm. With classrooms and labs going virtual, learning would be more effective and would render quicker and more efficient impact of the knowledge drawn. With 5G connectivity, the access to virtual labs and the quality of the Virtual lab experience will both be elevated to a new level.

With 5G, the most promising yet not easily implementable Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies can also be creatively integrated into the virtual labs to make the learner get extremely close to real-life-like experiences. Imagine with just a mobile phone and a wearable device, a learner will be able to interact and work inside a simulated lab/factory with equipment, people, and other entities in a manner that is similar to the ones present in a real lab, shop floor, or any other work environment. The blazing fast 5G speed will provide access to these virtual learning worlds to learners located at distant event locations. Be it learning to work on tasks that may be potentially dangerous (if not done right) or the ones that involve expensive physical equipment or software, with 5G-powered virtual labs, just about nothing could stand between rich experiential learning and those who are hungry for it.

5G and learning design:
Often a new technology leap itself can be considered by many as a solution to various problems. However, as has been the case in the past, it is only the effective imagination on the use of a new technology that can create a major positive impact. While designing experiential learning opportunities, both learning designers and educators will need to identify the best use cases for 5G, and leverage it more for situations that use a lot of bandwidth and speed, and not for simpler yet effective learning assets. They will need to collaborate closely with the industry to develop 5G virtual lab simulations and experiments very close to as they happen in an actual workplace.

They will also need to evaluate virtual labs that operate with 3G and 4G connectivity and identify the gaps in the learning experiences due to high latency and internet speed. Intelligent learning design would ensure that learners will not just experience the speed of access, but also an enriching and quality learning experience. As the 5G rollout gains momentum from various service providers, it is important for educators and pedagogy experts to wear their design hats and plan for highly innovative and impactful implementation of 5G for virtual labs.

In conclusion, here is a quote commonly attributed to Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived a few centuries before Aristotle: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. So, if doing is the best way to understand, then virtual labs are perhaps the safest and most accessible way to do and really understand anything. And with the advent of 5G now, virtual labs promise to begin a new era of rich experiential learning for all of us who need it or deserve it.

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