Learning on the edge: How edge computing could benefit classrooms


    COVID-19 has reshaped global campus design with new testing, tracing, building-management and isolation practices to minimize COVID-19 outbreaks. With its range of option that enable work during the pandemic, migrating to the cloud can help school districts prepare for business continuity in times of crisis. More importantly, the cloud has shifted the IT emphasis away from operational objectives, such as running data centers and managing infrastructure, towards helping schools deliver on more strategic goals around teaching, learning and student engagement.

    For all the benefits of cloud computing, its deployment requires robust connectivity, high bandwidth and low latency – conditions that may not always be met on campuses. In this respect, edge computing is emerging as a complementary enabler in the classroom. It helps that a large percentage of institutions are already adopting a cloud-first strategy, forming a solid foundation for edge networks. We look at its application in the classroom and distinct benefits for students, teachers and schools.

    The benefits of edge computing for schools

    Where cloud computing is about processing the data that is ‘out there’ on a centralized cloud platform, edge computing brings data collection and analysis at or close to the source. In other words, instead of sending vast amounts of data back to the central cloud for analysis, edge computing brings intelligence to devices at the network edge – which could include routers, routing switches, or even computers, laptops and tablets.

    The clearest benefit to classrooms is that of fast and reliable connectivity. Because data has a shorter distance to travel from the source to the edge, users enjoy better network speed and performance via reduced latency. That’s why edge computing wields so much potential for augmented-reality (AR) and virtual-reality (VR) applications, such as AR labs and experiments, in the classroom, which will require powerful connectivity to work seamlessly. On campuses, the application of edge technology will mean that students and teachers can access the information and applications they need to learn, teach and conduct research.

    As edge computing shifts access to data and applications away from dependence on a central data center, it also ensures resiliency. Unlike the centralized cloud, one breakdown at the edge does not mean that the whole network is disrupted, ensuring continuity for educational institutions in times of network issues or larger crises. On the flip side, schools’ IT teams could find it easier to isolate security issues and nip them in the bud without compromising the whole network. As schools and universities continue to depend on the decentralized cloud for research, major school events and ‘wired’ dormitory living, the security benefits of the edge will become increasingly appealing.

    One benefit that edge computing shares with cloud computing is its scalability. According to IBM, edge computing offers a less expensive route for organizations to grow their computing capability as compared to expensive, centralized data centers. Imagine that a school needs to build more campuses or quickly supply more processing-capable edge devices to students: each added edge device expands the network without adding much to costs or bandwidth demands.

    Edge computing in action: uses cases for the classroom

    Better connected devices
    The use of devices in schools worldwide continues to grow, with 48% of students reporting they use a desktop computer in the classroom. 42% use smartphones, 33% use interactive whiteboards and 20% use tablets – supporting the ‘gamification’ of education. As more devices and sensors enter schools, those that lack bandwidth to send data and information back to the central cloud could find processing data on the edge faster and more efficient.

    For students, this means better access to data and applications on devices such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams Education for enhanced learning and collaboration. For schools and teachers, sensors in educational toys, in classrooms or even on playgrounds can better provide real-time information about student behaviors and social dynamics, lending rich insights for more targeted actions.

    More immersive and interactive learning
    Edge computing supports smoother and more realistic AR and VR applications in schools. Equipped with industrial motherboards and intelligent edge computers, schools will be able to support local data processing and low latencies. This means that students will experience virtually no lag as compared to deployments that depend solely on the central cloud. The enhanced immersion only enriches and enlivens the learning experience and opens the gateway to the future of learning.

    This is the future of education that edge computing could enable: AR flashcards and worksheets add a layer of interaction and audio-visual interest to comparatively-stale black-and-white notes and lesson plans. Meanwhile, VR labs and experiments open space for creative problem-solving and interactive learning, even plunging students into otherworldly environments (for example, when learning about space) to foster deeper understanding and retention.

    Enhanced real-time feedback
    In the future, edge devices powered with machine-learning capabilities could take input from learners and respond instantly with the help of edge computing. Imagine smart feedback and devices that can track and monitor students as they study, do homework or play – logging areas where they excel, or areas where they struggle. These intelligent edge hardware and software solutions already exist, allowing institutions and organizations to prototype edge AI solutions, and to manage and secure them with ease.

    With the high network speed afforded by edge computing, these devices and systems could immediately adapt to students’ learning style, augmenting online classes to close gaps, delivering prompts and questions to foster learning, or suggesting suitable curricula tailored to their needs. While such use cases have not yet come to fruition, edge computing allows for these endless possibilities.

    A balance of cloud and edge

    In short, edge computing could transform education with a range of present and future applications. The technology, while distinct from cloud computing, is closely related and highly complementary. As schools virtualize their ecosystems, they should be carefully considering how to match specific needs to cloud and edge deployments – in order to get the best of both worlds for the benefits of students, teachers and the school at large.

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