A School Is Its People, Not Its Campus: Moving Education Online with Webex
Attending school is probably the most conventional way of acquiring a skill, a trade, or a body of knowledge. Schooling prepares you for the workplace, but the best education also teaches you how to learn. The most valuable skill in today’s ever-changing career landscape is curiosity. Being open to new ideas, being willing to adapt, and retaining a sense of excitement around learning are traits that follow a successful graduate long after their formal schooling has ended.
I saw this lesson play out recently at the , where I’m an educator and researcher. I work for our Department of Computers and Informatics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics and I’m also an advisor for the program. We operate the program in more than 80 high schools and the five biggest universities in Slovakia, and at another dozen schools in neighboring countries. We run an Academy Support Center—or ASC—and Instructor Training Center—or ITC—that offers courses in basic and advanced networking and security. We also teach new technologies like IoT, analytics and network programmability.
Learn, Play, Educate
TUKE has been affiliated with the Cisco Networking Academy for more than 20 years. I have joined the NetAcad community in 2004, while I was completing my third year of master's degree studies, and at the time, the slogan was “Changing the Way We Work, Live, Play and Learn.” From the very beginning, this combination of education and playful experimentation was paramount, and we offered hands-on training that spoke to young people in their language. That helped us scale fast. Before we knew it, there were dozens of Cisco Network Academies in the country, and we were training instructors from all over Slovakia and beyond.
TUKE’s relationship with Cisco extends even further back. We’ve used the company’s infrastructure since 1995, and our entire campus ran on Cisco equipment as well as our VoIP system was running on Cisco platform when I joined the faculty. We were one of the first locations in Slovakia to adopt Cisco to integrate our mobile and fixed IT assets for voice, video, and data transmission, including some special projects like using ATM switching for videoconferencing.
Although much of our mission and our infrastructure is reliant on Cisco, we hadn’t embraced one of the company’s most popular products: . We had a single on-prem Cisco Webex installation, but our hardware was obsolete and hadn’t been updated because only a handful of our staff ever used this location for remote work, distance learning, or meetings. While we had been early adopters of videoconferencing tools, we employed Webex technology on an ad hoc basis, and TUKE had never formalized our use of this collaborative platform.
Going Remote Overnight
All of this changed when the pandemic hit. COVID-19 shuttered our campus and all of our activities went online overnight. Whether we liked it or not, we were forced to engage remotely with our colleagues and our students to make sure we could continue to fulfill our academic and administrative duties, as well as to ensure our collective safety.
Suddenly, the need for training extended beyond the department of computers and informatics. We all needed to learn everything we could about Webex—and fast.
TUKE has expanded over the decades. We’re not just a technical-vocational institution anymore, but a full-fledged university with nine faculties and 47 departments. Our students, instructors, and staff needed to use Cisco Webex but not all of them were well-versed in videoconferencing and collaborative tools—or even IT in general. We had to bring all of them up to speed, along with all of our administrative staff. That meant I had to go beyond the scope of my typical responsibilities.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to shoulder this burden alone. We have a very close relationship with , a startup that was co-founded by four TUKE Ph.D graduates, that provides online ITC classes at the international level. A full-fledged Cisco partner, CEELABS helped us move from our single out-of-date Webex solution, used by a handful of people, to a campus-wide solution that brought remote collaboration and videoconferencing tools to the entire TUKE population.
Moving our activities to Webex to weather the pandemic required TUKE to evaluate and streamline multiple administrative and academic processes. An online classroom or meeting room is not the same as a physical space. You can’t just point webcams at people and expect the dynamic to be the same as an in-person learning environment. Online collaboration requires users to rethink their approach and to fine-tune their delivery to reflect the medium they’re using.
One of the ways we helped our staff make the transition was by creating slide decks that explained how to use Webex to meet their needs. We worked with CEELABS to author training material that explained the differences between , , , and and how to plan different activities using these tools. We then offered remote training to small groups of administrators or educators to get them up to speed.
One of the benefits of working with CEELABS—or any technology partner—is the ability to exchange ideas with an outsider. Getting an external perspective often allows an organization to look beyond the obvious. CEELABS helped us take a deep dive into Webex, and since their origins are rooted in our university, we have the added benefit of having fantastic synergy. They’re an outsider that knows the ins and outs of how we operate.
Digging Deeper Into Webex
Webex’s videoconferencing capabilities only scratch the surface of what it can do, and once we did some digging, we realized the platform’s true potential. We liked what we saw, and so did our staff and faculty. Our colleagues started using Webex to hold committee meetings so the university could continue to function at the institutional level during the pandemic. Our teachers also started using it to deliver their lectures, but this was only the tip of the iceberg.
For example, Webex Training allows participants to create breakout sessions that are independent of the main room, create the privacy for specific occasions, etc. Our instructors started using this feature to have private discussions about student thesis defense presentations. Our executives turned to the platform’s polling function to vote on administrative matters that required a secret ballot. They can do all of this without having to leave the main meeting or launch a separate session.
Our most exciting application of Webex so far was running a virtual academic conference that included multiple conference tracks. Two hundred people took part in the event and were able to attend sessions, panels, workshops, and discussions just as they would have done at an on-site event. We usually have a few hundred people using Webex every day, but this was the first time we brought so many together for a single online gathering.
Indulging Our Curiosity
The COVID-19 crisis has helped accelerate change at TUKE by making remote work and videoconferencing tools part of our daily lives. Educational institutions such as ours had no choice but to move our administration, our classes, and other activities online, even though it was something that we hadn’t considered before. It was a matter of survival. We had very little time to scale the adoption of these tools, but our people quickly became proficient and creative in their use.
While we have trained our administrators and our instructors to use Webex to respond to the pandemic, the platform offers further functionalities we have yet to explore. So even though everyone at TUKE has been using Webex out of necessity to work around the virus for the last few months, I don’t expect engagement with the platform to drop anytime soon. When we fully reopen our campus, I expect users will innovate with Webex in ways we have yet to imagine. The crisis has sparked their curiosity and we want to use that momentum to make our educational offering the best it can be.
I’m proud that we were able to take TUKE online with minimal disruption, and we learned a valuable lesson in the process. The pandemic taught us that TUKE is not the campus. It isn’t our labs, our classrooms, or our libraries. TUKE is our students, our staff, and our faculty. I believe this realization will have a long-lasting positive impact on the way we approach education in the coming years.