Digitally transforming: developing more intelligent education

By Nadim Abdulrahim

Nadim Abdulrahim, Global Government Industry Scientist at Huawei Enterprise Business Group, shares how emerging technologies can boost the education sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every field around the world, and the effects are certainly being felt in education. In fact, over the last year or so, about 1.5 billion students — 90 per cent of all primary, secondary, and university level students worldwide — have been unable to attend their schools or campuses for at least some period of time.

This period of disruption has been transformative. Education providers worldwide have hurried to adopt smart technologies to ensure education continuity for all, adapting to online teaching and learning with new, agile, and more efficient, solutions. The use of technology in education isn't a new trend, of course, but this round of digital transformation brings long-term benefits and is about much more than merely increasing the amount of remote teaching and learning.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) aims to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 1, 4, and 10 — reduce poverty; high quality education and promotion of lifelong learning; and ensure equal access to opportunity — by 2025. Affordable connectivity is essential to get more children into education, reduce the digital divide, and increase digital literacy. Applying the global perspective that UNESCO looks at such objectives from, about 3.6 billion people still have no Internet access, and approximately 250 million children are out of school. Clearly, in this context, digital transformation has huge scope to affect change.

Digitally transforming education


Digital transformation is about applying the benefits of data and technology to enhance organisations' core business operations to meet customer needs, with the agility to adapt to change — in this case, applied to the education systems of the world.

The target customers for education systems are, of course, students, teachers, staff, and alumni. The core business operations must enhance the customer experience of all of these groups, and revolve around the education platform, the learning environment, the teaching methods, and the campus environment.

Operations in all of these areas require infrastructure and governance to connect them. At the national level, Ministries of Education (MoEs) formulate and implement education policies on education structure, curriculum, methods, and assessment. Typically, their vision is to ensure that their citizens have equal opportunities to reach their potential, live more fulfilled lives, create a more productive economy, and alleviate poverty. These MoEs also regulate and oversee the management and development of public and private education providers, from primary to university levels.

Building a new education platform

For MoEs to carry out these duties, they need data from the education providers about the students, the teachers, the curriculum, and the assessment results. Each student, teacher, and member of staff requires a digital identity so that their progress, development, and assessment can be measured against national Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

If a national curriculum is provided, it can be published online for all education providers that are enrolled to access. In order to manage all this data, a national education platform is required to process it and provide strategic governance and planning to achieve their objectives.

In essence, the education platform consists of national infrastructure connectivity between the education providers, high speed national and international networks for sharing resources and scientific research, a cloud platform to process data, store Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), host all the required applications as well as support analytics and reporting.

The digital transformation of a national education systems starts with analysing the capabilities of the existing education platform, identifying its shortcomings. Here, a long-term agile, cloud-based platform that can adapt to ever-changing needs with data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities will be helpful. An ecosystem of both local and international partners is also required, to provide curriculum content and smart applications as required.

Learning environments are beginning to look very different

With the increased use of remote and online classes and video conferencing applications, now is the time to implement national solutions and use eClassrooms to transform the ways students are taught. Teachers in traditional classrooms can simultaneously broadcast to remote branch eClassrooms to reach more students, while maintaining the interactive aspect of teaching. Products such as HUAWEI IdeaHub— an interactive digital whiteboard for video conferencing, writing, drawing, and sharing, can help with this.

Technology can allow teachers to focus on teaching to make classrooms – remote or otherwise - more effective.  This also applies to school and university education, providing more cost-effective remote education.

The next level of evolution of the learning environment centers on Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), which create a virtual and interactive platform for students and teachers to interact, either on site or remotely. These technologies can make the teaching and virtual lab experiences of complex concepts easier by immersing the students in an interactive audio-visual 3D experience.

At the national level, the communication infrastructure would have to be upgraded to cater for the increased use of bandwidth, and move toward wireless coverage everywhere by implementing 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology.

Incorporating smarter teaching methods


A key driver of digital transformation in teaching methods is using technology to connect more students, especially in under-developed regions of the world. In cooperation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UNESCO has multiple programs running in underdeveloped regions, including Giga, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, and the eSchool international initiative.

These programs focus on providing Internet connectivity to remote schools and cost-effective learning tablets. Connecting schools to the Internet in remote areas is an entry point for bringing connectivity to entire communities, to reduce the digital divide, enable digital literacy, and bank the unbanked — reducing poverty in the long-term.

With its interactive learning functions, HUAWEI IdeaHub plays a key role in enabling online remote classrooms teaching methods. The built-in AI technology adds to the functionality and enhances the interactive audio visual experience of the students. As these teaching methods are introduced, the curriculum has to be adapted to encompass these additional audiovisual benefits compared to traditional textbook methods.

One of the new teaching methods that has been introduced as result of the pandemic is Online-Merge-Offline (OMO) learning. OMO learning uses a hybrid infrastructure that combines open educational practices and real-time learning spaces, both online and offline.

Transformation requirements include focusing on eClassroom space design, course material, technological considerations, pedagogical considerations, and training on how to use the new technologies. Meanwhile, teachers create online course material, assign a teaching group, create teacher classes, publish announcements, set study plans, and check learning progress through assignments and tests.

In the online mode, e-classes have interactive discussions in a virtual cloud environment with voice, video, whiteboard, and document sharing. In the offline mode, students log in at their own convenience and are guided through a self-study process based on materials and recorded discussions.  AI-based exam proctoring is part of the assessment process, and all data is captured to evaluate students, teachers, and the course.

Making education campuses more efficient

Education campuses need to be run as efficiently as possible to be cost effective. Introducing technology can help to automate operations.

A smart management platform, like a Physical Security Information Management (PSIM), is needed to collect essential security, safety, and facility data to handle activities — based on predetermined, repeatable processes — and enable accurate decision making to resolve situations. Data is collected from multiple integrated sub-systems, including video surveillance, access control, fire detection, Wi-Fi, parking management, and Building Management Systems (BMS).

Advanced AI-based analytics will enhance the security with digital identity and license plate recognition. It can also be used for other purposes such as contactless attendance records, social distancing, face mask detection, unusual behavior (such as running, overcrowding, falling, and wrong direction), and sentiment monitoring.

To enhance the user experience on education campuses, a converged network and all-wireless strategy is advisable. A converged network consists of a software-defined network that acts as one network (wired and wireless), incorporating integrated security, all-wireless coverage and predictive AI-based Operations and Maintenance (O&M). Using Wi-Fi 6 technology enables gigabit wireless communication for all devices used anywhere on the campus facilities, be it a cellphone, laptop, tablet, printer, interactive whiteboard screen, AR or VR headset, or an Internet of Things (IoT) device.

An all-wireless strategy is cost effective. It reduces wired infrastructure costs, maintenance, and future upgrade ability. Data collected from Wi-Fi systems can provide heat density maps of devices, which can help to identify the number of people in a particular area.

This is useful for overcrowding monitoring, and in case of emergency evacuations can detect whether everyone has reached assigned assembly points.

Furthermore, Wi-Fi 6 asset-tracking capabilities using Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags can keep a record of where all valuable tracked items are on campus, and provide alarms if any exit any predefined geofenced area. It's also possible to collect data from IoT devices, using ZigBee or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to enhance the capability of collecting data from devices with minimal additional infrastructure.

Applying the benefits of data and technology will help safeguard compliance with regulations and processes in campuses, especially if they're ever-changing and require quick adaptation to new scenarios — as we have experienced with the Covid-19 pandemic, and may see with other unforeseen events that might arise in the future. Having both a smart management platform integrated with all sub-systems that can be easily adapted and a wireless-everywhere strategy is a key step in digitally transforming a campus.

Blockchain is the future of intelligent education


The next phase of technology adoption in education is likely using blockchain to protect data. Safeguarding education data and ensuring its privacy is paramount, especially if students are given a Digital Identity (DID) that links all of their school and university education records at a national level. The advantage here is that data on the blockchain is immutable, decentralised and provides advanced encryption, ensuring data security.

This shift toward blockchain is already underway, with Ethiopia announcing in April 2021 that it's working with the Cardano Foundation — a Swiss-based blockchain organisation — to enlist five million primary and secondary students and 700,000 teachers on to the blockchain system. It will provide a DID for every individual and track their assessments and development based on national KPIs.

The benefits of blockchain in education include creating immutable student records, the ease of issuing and verifying degree certificates and transcripts (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began issuing blockchain-stored diplomas to its graduates in 2017), and digital curriculum file storage. This reduces paper-based processes, minimises fraud, and increases accountability.

There are many exciting possibilities to come as we move toward a more intelligent type of education. On that journey, the next step is likely applying blockchain's advanced smart contract capabilities.

The use of smart contracts in education platforms will allow administrative tasks to be automated, reducing overhead costs; saving time by using smart contract-based examinations that have built-in and automated AI-assisted scoring parameters; preparing automated test-type assessments from question pools; and using a smart contract-powered supply chain to improve inventory tracking. With the necessary technologies for these functions already available, the future is certainly promising — as new innovations enable intelligent education to evolve.

The annual Huawei Global Intelligent Education Summit was held on July 7-8, 2021. Huawei, together with its global partners, explored innovative technologies to accelerate the digital journey of organisations and to create new value for the education sector. Click here to find out more about Huawei’s suite of solution for the future of intelligent education.

About the Author

Nadim Abdulrahim, Global Government Industry Scientist, Huawei Enterprise Business Group

Nadim Abdulrahim is the Global Government Industry Scientist at Huawei Enterprise Business Group. As an industry leader in government and public safety, Nadim possesses rich knowledge in government-focused ICT that enables public service organizations to manage global threats quickly and effectively. He is also a solution specialist with vast design experience, allowing him to digitally transform challenging customer requirements into workable mission-critical solutions that make communities more safe and secure.

Images from Huawei