Can 5G Tech Transform Teaching and Learning? Verizon Issues Challenge to Nonprofits

Associate Editor

an image of hands holding smartphones The Verizon Foundation is offering nonprofits a chance to tap a $1 million pool of funding to develop 5G-enabled apps, betting that the technology can spark innovations in teaching and learning.

The 5G EdTech Challenge focuses on helping middle school students from under-resourced communities. It invites nonprofit organizations to submit proposals to tackle specific problems focused on student engagement, the preparation of teachers to teach STEM courses, and personalized learning for students with special needs.

The emergence of 5G (or fifth generation) mobile wireless technology—which is expected to be faster, more responsive, and capable of connecting more devices at once—opens doors for connectivity that expands schools’ ability to approach these issues in new and unfamiliar ways, according to Verizon. Ed-tech projects considered for this challenge will use augmented reality, virtual reality or artificial intelligence, according to the Verizon announcement

The 5G network itself is close to launch, with the company announcing a 5G home internet service in Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and Sacramento available next month. Other companies—AT&T and T-Mobile among them—have announced plans to launch 5G in select major cities across the U.S. by the end of this year as well.

By 2025, 5G will become the leading mobile network technology in North America, according to a recent industry report. But it is far from reaching classrooms nationwide, as students would need to use 5G-enabled smartphones and tablets that are just coming onto the market this year.

Verizon Innovative Learning plans to provide devices and technology to the schools involved with its 5G EdTech Challenge, which is a  partnership between the Verizon Foundation and NYC Media Lab. Each of the 10 winners of the challenge will receive $100,000 in funding and tools to bring their concepts to life in schools.

Two under-resourced middle schools will be the pilot sites for apps beginning in spring 2019, and the rest are expected to be in testing mode at the end of 2019, said Justina Nixon-Saintil, the director of corporate social responsibility at Verizon, in a phone interview.

Why focus only on middle school?

“That’s an area where students start getting very disengaged in school,” Nixon-Saintil said. And parents’ involvement in school typically drops off after their children leave the elementary grades as well, she said.

Beyond that, teachers in under-resourced schools often struggle to get kids excited about STEM, she added, so the students are unprepared for the greater rigor of high school courses in those subjects.

How the Challenge Works

5G technology could be used to improve instruction in a variety of ways, Verizon contends. In schools where teachers lack subject-matter expertise, perhaps because of teacher shortages, the technology could support holograms of educators with a strong background in the topic or experts from a field augmenting the instruction in the classroom. Nixon-Saintil emphasized that the purpose would not be to replace educators, but support them.

For students with special needs, the immersive capabilities of 5G could allow them to have a tactile experience and “touch things” that are otherwise beyond their grasp. Or, a high-touch solution could deliver a one-to-one learning experience via virtual reality so they can learn in a different way, she said.

Those are the kinds of solutions Verizon is hoping teams will propose in the competition, she said.

Applicants must be non-profits and can include startups or established organizations, research groups and universities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as Hispanic Serving Institutes. Organizations can submit beta phase projects online at from October 15 to November 30, 2018.

The proposals will be evaluated by a group of industry leaders, social impact advocates, and tech experts convened by the Verizon Foundation and NYC Media Lab.

Besides getting funding, the winning teams will gain access to 5G nodes, Verizon 5G training and mentors, and support teams within education. Schools involved with the pilots will receive smartphones and VR equipment for the tests, said Nixon-Saintil.

“This is a high priority for us as a business,” she said. “We don’t require any investment from schools, except the time [for educators] to be part of training. We’re not asking for any infrastructure investment.”

Aside from its work on this 5G challenge, Verizon announced yesterday that it will add 50 new Verizon Innovative Learning Schools in 2018-19, with an investment of $1.8 million per school, bringing the total number of schools to 150. Digital Promise collaborates with the company to equip every student and teacher in select middle schools with a tablet and a two-year data plan. Teacher training is also part of the partnership.

The company said it reaches 1 million Title I middle school students across the U.S. and has committed to reaching an additional 2 million students by 2021.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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