The old building that houses Cleveland’s Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs Campus, part of Breakthrough Schools, has sure come a long way since its days as an elevator factory.
In addition to hosting a public K-8 charter school, the former factory was recently outfitted with augmented and virtual reality stations, 3D printers and interactive screens in preparation for Saturday’s announcement: that it’s the first school in the country equipped with 5G wireless technology.
For Katie Grootegoed, the district’s director of technology-enhanced learning, 5G was never on her radar, nor within the realm of possibility. After all, she was brought on three years ago to help the nonprofit charter network roll out its first one-to-one device program.
But then Breakthrough was accepted into the Verizon Innovation Learning program, which provides technology and professional development to Title I districts across the country. By supporting schools in low-incomes areas and helping them access high-quality learning technology, the program aims to increase equity and close the digital divide in education.
After a successful first year working with Breakthrough, Verizon was looking for a district to serve as its inaugural 5G-enabled education site. The company landed on Breakthrough because of its existing technology infrastructure, district leadership support and proximity to Cleveland, which Verizon announced in the spring would be one of 30 cities getting access to 5G before the year was up.
While Verizon converged on Cleveland to install the fiber and construct a 5G radio near the school, Breakthrough got to work transforming an unfinished wing of the old factory—which the students referred to as “Narnia”—into a modern learning lab with an open floor plan and all sorts of gadgets, bells and whistles.
“The overall feel takes the makerspace or Fab Lab up a notch,” Grootegoed says. “We’re pumped to get our students in there and see not only their reaction but also what they create. They’re going to knock our socks off with this 5G.”
A student at Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs Campus, part of Breakthrough Schools, uses a 3D printer in the school's new 5G Learning Lab. (Verizon)
5G, short for fifth generation, refers to wireless networks that support internet speeds that will allow data to move faster, in larger amounts, for more simultaneous users than ever before. Places like football stadiums, airports, rallies and other high-density areas will no longer experience the lag times expected today. Proponents say it will usher in a new wave of technologies, including automated cars, immersive educational tools involving AR and VR, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
In short, from a technology standpoint, it’s expected to change the way we live. But it will take years to get there.
In the meantime, students at Breakthrough schools will learn using projects from Verizon’s 5G EdTech Challenge, which invited nonprofits, universities and startups to submit experiences that use AR, VR, machine learning, artificial intelligence and mixed reality to enhance student engagement and teacher professional development. The 10 winning projects, which were awarded $1 million each, will be featured in the 5G Learning Lab at Breakthrough’s Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs Campus. They will also be available to other schools in the district, including Citizens Leadership Academy, which Verizon also equipped with 5G but does not house its own learning lab.
A student at Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs Campus uses the virtual reality station in her school's new 5G Learning Lab. (Verizon)
Though the lab in Cleveland is the first in the country with 5G, to Verizon officials’ knowledge, it is certainly not the last. The company’s goal is to connect 100 U.S. schools, all from the Verizon Innovative Learning program, to 5G by the end of 2021. Justina Nixon Saintil, Verizon’s director of corporate social responsibility, says her team has already identified 30 of the schools and plans to equip them with 5G by “mid-2020.” The 30, which have not been announced, are likely near or within cities expected to gain access to 5G in the next year, following the blueprint established by Breakthrough and Cleveland.
Nixon Saintil says she is eager to see how 5G technology transforms learning in Ohio and beyond. With 5G, “it becomes tangible, hands-on learning,” she says. “I think the opportunity to make inaccessible things become real is one of the big bonuses of 5G access.”
5G is about so much more than just eliminating laggy internet connections in crowded places, Grootegoed explains. “Some of the apps that the students will get to experience dig a little deeper into things they’ve only been able to interact with via the web or a textbook,” she says. “They’ll be able to engage in a way we’ve only ever thought about or seen in sci-fi movies.”
A group of students at Entrepreneurship Prep Cliffs Campus. Students at the K-8 charter school recently learned that their school was the first in the country equipped with 5G. (Verizon)
It’s one thing for kids to read about stars, to pore over textbook diagrams and then, on a clear night, try to square what they’ve learned with the bright specks in the sky. But the students at Breakthrough schools, through 5G-enabled immersive technology and devices, will be able to travel into space and examine a star up close, grasping its place in the galaxy—and theirs.
Students will be able to do the same with biology, going inside the human body and inspecting an organ or a cell up close, and with social studies, traveling to the Great Pyramid of Giza and learning about the construction and the era.
“That level of engagement with our students is going to blow the top off of what we’ve only imagined,” Grootegoed says. “I think our students are going to shine with this opportunity.”