Why having full fibre in every street will transform the way we all learn

Faster access to digital experiences will give learners the edge, whether they’re at school, college or university – or learning at home.

Technology offers us an opportunity to create more immersive, flexible, tailored learning that engages with young people.
Technology offers us an opportunity to create more immersive, flexible, tailored learning that engages with young people.

IT’S a scene that’s been repeated in households up and down the country over the past seven months – children logging onto the internet to do their schoolwork, while their parents try to juggle jobs and training courses online. Throw in a bit of music streaming, internet shopping, and a houseful of mobile phones chewing up the Wi-Fi and it’s little wonder that Scotland’s ageing copper telephone wires are straining to cope with the demand.

Even once the pandemic ends, it looks like a blend of traditional and digital learning is here to stay. A review by the University of Dundee of 1,540 educational studies found 61 per cent of papers concluded that digital technology was “better than traditional instruction”.

That shift towards incorporating more digital material into both schoolwork in the classroom and homework in the house will be underpinned by the rollout of full fibre right into almost every home and business. Full fibre is optical fibres, which use rays of light travelling down tiny glass tubes to carry data instead of electrical signals along traditional copper wires. Fibre allows more data to be carried more quickly, increasing the capacity to deliver digital learning.

“Fibre opens the door to more immersive experiences,” explains Elaine Doherty, regional lead for Scotland and the north east of England at CityFibre, the UK’s third largest network infrastructure provider. “Being able to use virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will bring lessons to life.”

Doherty points to the opportunities to let pupils explore locations in their geography lessons, or experience days gone by in their history lessons. She also highlights how digital technology can even inject excitement into dry maths lessons, allowing kinaesthetic learners to learn by doing, auditory learners to learn by listening, and visual learners to learn by reading and watching. Add in the use of augmented reality and the potential to use eLearning becomes even greater. Where once a teacher might have started a term by asking students to write an essay on their holiday – with some revisiting their trip to an exotic destination while others may well have felt they had little to write about – technology can afford a more exciting and all-inclusive option.

How much more fun for the teacher and pupils to take a virtual trip to visit the Grand Canal in Venice together, or to dive beneath the Indian Ocean.

“The potential benefits of full fibre are enormous,” agrees Doherty. “This was increasingly accepted pre-covid, but the global pandemic has certainly forced the issue and accelerated the use of digital technology in education.

“Technology offers us an opportunity to create far more immersive, flexible, tailored learning that engages with young people in a way that they increasingly want to embrace and not just in their classroom.”

“Having digital lessons will also make school pupils less reliant on chalk-and-talk lessons in the classroom,” adds Doherty. “They’ll be able to do more independent learning, which will set them in good stead for the move onto college or university.”

Doherty offers an important caveat: “We do need to ensure equity of devices. In other words, we do need to make sure that some students don’t get left behind because they don’t have the devices best suited to smart schooling.”

Several universities – including Edinburgh Napier and Stirling – have assembled “device libraries” from which students can borrow equipment to take part in digital learning, both on campus and in their accommodation. Having full fibre down every street will not only help to enhance inclusion for school pupils but also for university and college students; it won’t matter if they’re staying in expensive halls of residence or draughty digs.

After graduation, full fibre also widens opportunities for lifelong learning and training. If workers take a break from their careers to raise their family or through illness then being able to learn skills while at home brings myriad opportunities, especially in the digital arena.

For those already in work, continuous professional development (CPD) can become far more accessible and immersive, whether it’s surgeons conducting remote surgery on patients on the other side of the planet as part of training or teachers learning how to use technology to enhance the blend of traditional and digital learning for their pupils.

A report by computer giant Dell predicts that 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet, emphasising the need to retrain – and the opportunities available. Meanwhile, accountancy firm PwC estimates that – while 20 per cent of roles will become automated – seven million jobs will be created in the UK by 2037, with growth sectors including scientific and technical, and information and communication.

“It’s crucial that people moving into technology jobs have up-to-date skills, whether they’re coming from school, college or university, or returning to the workforce,” Doherty adds. “It’s no good coding in programming languages that are out of date and no longer used in the real world – learning the right skills is what will give people the edge.”