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Technology in
special education:
How 5G could help

Author: Paul Gillin

Technology in special education is a lifeline to the more than seven million children, or about 14% of all U.S. public school students—according to the National Center for Education Statistics—who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Assistive technology in special education can make it possible for students to engage in inclusive instruction with their fellow students.

Assistive technology in special education can help students in multiple ways. For example, assistive text-to-speech software can allow students with visual disabilities to keep up with their classmates on reading assignments. Students with reading disabilities, who are more likely to be visual learners, can benefit from video instruction instead of book learning.

5G in particular has the potential to improve personalization by creating systems that understand the unique needs of each student and create customized curricula. Virtual teaching assistants could select lesson plans and assessments based on the preferences of individual learners.

Assistive listening systems could help students with hearing disabilities participate in classroom discussions or instantly transcribe audio into text. Switches activated by small movements of the mouth, hands or feet could enable students with limited mobility to operate robotic equipment, create email messages and unlock doors. Here's how technology could be used to its full potential within special education.

Assistive technology in special education

Augmented and virtual reality technology in special education has enormous potential. Augmented reality (AR) can provide contextual information about what a person sees. For example, the Smithsonian Institution's Skin & Bones app enables students to inspect animal skeletons and understand how they help an animal survive in its habitat. Virtual reality uses a headset to immerse students in another world, enabling them to soar over Angel Falls in Venezuela or perform virtual dissections in a team environment. For students whose disabilities would prevent them from ever experiencing such events in real life, virtual reality is a ticket to another world.

However, all of these technologies require bandwidth, which is in short supply in many public schools. Slow bandwidth detracts from the educational experience by dragging down performance for everyone. Buffering and frame jitter can make the use of streaming video, for example, difficult or impractical.

The Brookings Institution estimates that the median U.S. school district has 654 kbps of available capacity per student. About 15% of school districts deliver less than 250 kbps, which is the minimum threshold recommended by the State Educational Technology Directors Association and is barely enough to support even basic web browsing.

Bandwidth requirements for technology and special education are only going to grow.

Brookings cites one study that estimated that high-definition streaming video requires about four megabits per second per student, which is well above the capability of most school districts. Virtual reality demands at least 25 Mbps per second for even basic experiences. That could put most assistive technology in special education for students in public schools that do not have broadband connectivity. Where 5G is available, 5G could help schools that depend on using technology in special education but don't have access to reliable broadband connectivity.

A dedicated 5G signal per user

High-band 5G networks could be a game-changer in this respect. Not only does it enable high-speed connectivity, but 5G also allows signals to be separated into numerous virtualized and independent logical networks within the same physical network infrastructure. Leveraging 5G network services, school network administrators could more easily ensure support for the most bandwidth-demanding applications being consumed by their students.

This could make entirely new applications of technology in education possible. For example, downloading a high-definition video on 4G can take half the length of a typical class period. With 5G, the time could be reduced to seconds.

Using 5G technology in special education could mean more functional devices

5G networks could also indirectly relieve another structural problem of assistive technology in special education, which is limited processor and storage capacity. Applications like real-time translation and assistive robotics require high-speed microprocessors and large amounts of storage. It's a challenge to pack all that power into the small form factors that are required for portability.

With 5G, data that now must be stored locally can be moved into the network. Many applications will no longer need to be downloaded but can be served up as a network stream. Not only do students get the benefit of the latest software but their devices will be able to handle more applications without bogging down.

That means robotics for students with physical disabilities could be more responsive, transcriptions for students with hearing disabilities could be faster and more accurate, and students with physical impairments could be able to enter virtual worlds with their classmates. That could contribute to a more inclusive learning experience for everyone.

For students whose disabilities prevent them from being physically in the classroom, 5G can improve the quality of remote video learning by reducing lag that can be common over Wi-Fi connections. Teachers will be able to focus on learners rather than making technology work. Immersive virtual reality over 5G could also become more practical, enabling students with disabilities to experience the feeling of being in the classroom.

Many special needs students struggle to process language or to communicate effectively. Near-real-time transcription over 5G networks could enable them to keep up with their classmates by reading what's being said in the classroom and "speaking" through voice synthesis. The wireless technology could also usher in the "tactile Internet," according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. When combined with virtual reality, this could enable students who can't accompany their classmates on field trips to see, hear and touch objects that would otherwise not be available to them.

Learn more about how 5G technology in special education could be important to engaging and effectively teaching students.