Saturday, February 27, 2021

Starlink changes everything. It may be the most important form of learning technology of the century

I was out in my garden in May last year, watching a stream of satellites pass in a line overhead. It was beautiful. Starlink changes everything. In online learning it absolutely changes everything. A global network of satellites delivering high speed broadband means that anyone, anywhere in the world can get high-speed broadband.

How does it work?

There are over 1000 satellites up already. Target is 2027 for thousands more satellites. Why so many? Well, each has a small cone of coverage but it cuts latency. Lasers between satellites travel at the speed of light. This is much faster than optical delivery through cable and allows global distribution with very low latency. Note that this will not wipe out urban networks but is great for rural and low density markets. If you are worried about space debris, their satellites have propulsion, collision software and can be dropped to disintegrate when they come to the end of their life.

What does it cost?

Prices at the moment are £89 plus £439 for the dish and speeds at 50-150mbs. However, speeds will soon double and prices will fall. It has over 10,000 users in its US beta program and is also delivering services to users in the UK. You can sign up right now.

How did we get here?

It’s less than 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web in 1991. There was no broadband 20 years ago from today. It started in the UK on 31 March 2000 and for years it was kilobits then just 2megabits by 2005. 50 megabits was introduced in 2008, 100 by 2010. This was an amazing achievement and has revolutionised play, work and learning.

1G networks were the first, 2G networks added data for things like SMS messages, 3G internet added even more and 4G, what we currently use, much faster internet access that has enabled social media and streaming. With every gear change comes faster and more efficient delivery. 5G delivers much, much higher speed and bandwidth. 4G caps out at 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G caps out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is x100 faster than 4G technology, theoretically at least. 

But what does this Starlink move mean? 

To be honest, this is not really about 5G. Starlink is more important than 5G. It allows us to work and learn anywhere. It will allow people to move out of cities. High bandwidth, low latency, reliable internet will change how we work and learn. Its timing is perfect with respect to Covid. Now that we've been through the Great Pause and learnt to work and learn more at home, Starlink accelerates this process.

Rural business

First, It’s a great leveller. It delivers high-speed broadband to all rural areas, allowing work to migrate out of the cities, also boosting local businesses. Broadband will. No longer be an urban thing. This is in line with the political demands in countries where populations have voted for less globalisations and urbanisation, in favour for a more geographically, equal distribution of wealth. SpaceX had to reach certain delivery speeds in order to participate in the Federal Communication Commission's up to $16bn Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. 

Developing world benefits

More than this, it allows broadband to be delivered to anywhere on the planet. This include the whole of the developing world. This is mind-boggling and may free up the talent in those economies, bringing them into the fold. Anyone can produce anything and sell their talents online. The local becomes global.

Global online learning

Post-Covid, the world will undoubtedly have taken a shift towards online learning in schools, colleges, Universities and the workplace. Forget the conspiracy theories, 5G wireless technology stands for ‘fifth generation’ cellular technology. Tie this up with Starlink, a low earth orbit network of satellites delivering blistering speeds to everywhere in the world and the engine that is AI, and we have a perfect storm that will transform global, online learning.

SpaceX's satellite internet system will offer still blazingly fast speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. It will offer satellite internet to the entire planet, including remote locations where internet isn't currently available. Its satellites are low enough, and move (not geostationary), to deliver this with no blindspots. That’s an astounding leap. A couple of orders of magnitude better and global coverage. In terms of delivery and the user experience in online learning, this means a lot. In short, we can get online. learning anywhere.

Ultra low latency

We spend a lot of time watching that little circle spinning on our screens. Technically it’s called latency, the time taken to find, identify and transfer data. 5G will make this all but disappear. This matters when you’re delivering complex online learning, whether it’s video, simulations, AI, VR or AR.

The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work. But their research also supports the case for 5G. 35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes online learning work.

Why is this relevant to 5G? Well in real life we live in real time. We don’t encounter little spinning circles, except when waiting on a late train or in a queue, and who wants that? Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the real world and the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.

The spell is easily broken. Nass & Reeves showed that unnatural ‘pauses’ inhibit learning. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for online learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered in real-time by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.

A simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing. They lower learning. All that disappears with 5G.

Flawless streaming

Streaming will become much easier and almost flawless, allowing online learning to deliver whatever media is necessary at whatever time is optimal for learning. Note that this does not open the floodgates for over-engineered multimedia in learning, Media rich is not necessarily mind-rich. Many see video as the killer app for 5G. It is one but video is rarely enough on its own in learning. It will certainly boost LXP, personalised delivery of any media type.

AI mediated learning

AI delivered learning will also be easier as realtime calls to cloud-based AI services opens up smart solutions in learning. This opens up a new world for adaptive learning, feedback, chatbots, automated notifications based on xAPI, learning in the workflow. Specifically, it allows access to services, such as OpenAI API to tap into AI on demand. This means smarter, faster and better online learning. We free ourselves from the current presentation of flat, linear experiences. The process, and learning is not an event but a process, will be sensitive to each individual learner. Personalised learning becomes a reality. I mention Starlink in my book AI for Learning.

New user experiences

New user experiences and processes will be possible when we free ourselves from the tyranny of latency and slow speed internet. The promise of blended learning that can deliver great simulations, immersion and whatever one has delivered in the real world or classroom is now possible. New business models will emerge. New forms of learning with full immersion, AI, personalisation will emerge.

New devices

Rumours have it that Apple will be offering a ‘glasses’ or AR device. In any case, wearables, watches and small devices are now everywhere. 5G allows high speed access to and from these devices. This is not just about smartphones, it frees up fast internet speeds to all devices. We can link learning to devices that provide the context for learning. Where are you, what are you doing, then this is what we can do to help. This all becomes possible wherever you are indoors or outdoors, anywhere on the planet. 


The great leaps in learning technologies were writing, the alphabet, printing, broadcast media, computers, the internet and now AI and data. But this is the Internet with a difference. It's universal and global. Higher performance and improved efficiency empower new user experiences and connects new industries. This is not about boosting learning. It is about changing the very nature of education and learning. The implications for the poorer regions of the world are obvious, as it could be a great leveller. The tides rise with the gravitational pull of the moon, this is a rising tide that also comes from space, for everyone, one that doesn’t ebb.

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