Adapting to a Hybrid Learning Approach with Cisco Webex
For centuries, education has always been an in-person activity. Even with the advent of homework, the majority of the learning took place in a central location. These interactions, with both teachers and students, have always been critical to the learning process. Ettore Majorana Secondary Technical School in Milazzo, Italy, was a part of this proud tradition.
For a secondary technical school, Ettore Majorana is large. We have 180 teachers educating 1,600 students, which provides a ratio of one teacher for almost every nine students. But, perhaps, it is our operation itself that is most impressive. We have as many as ten specializations for our students, including Materials and Inorganic Chemistry, Biotechnology, Electronics, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Telecommunications, Mechanics/Mechatronics, Transport (Air Navigation), and Logistics.
We teach 67 classes hosted in 74 classrooms. Spread throughout our facilities, there are 26 laboratories, 32 LANs, 280 workstations and an advanced testing laboratory on AI, robotics, and programmable systems, called FABLAB. Ours is an organization dedicated to using the latest technologies and educational techniques. We are constantly on the lookout for new methodologies and updates to our academic content to help us provide our students with the best chance of a successful career in IT. Finding a job in Italy is difficult and our goal is not only to help them find a job, but if it is possible to stay in the area.
Staying the Course
In the past few years, distance learning technologies have experienced substantial growth. Despite our focus on technology, we did not change our basic philosophy about the importance of proximity. We still believed that the best instruction took place when teachers and students were together in the same room: the only difference was that our classrooms used interactive whiteboards instead of traditional chalkboards.
Part of this resistance to change was due to our subject matter. A significant part of our curriculum is based on hands-on laboratories, and it is difficult to teach labs remotely. This is more imperative for those specializations in mechanics, chemistry, and biotechnology, where we use a variety of special equipment and support software that would not be easily available for remote use. As far as networks and computer science are concerned, thankfully, through our partnership with Cisco Networking Academy, we use Cisco Packet Tracer—a powerful network simulation tool, which students can use at home.
By now, it should be quite clear that ours was a very complicated institution—both in logistics and organization. It was tough enough to coordinate the moving parts with everyone sitting in the same building. Although we were aware of remote working and distance learning technologies, we remained consistently focused on in-person education. Nothing short of a worldwide emergency would cause us to rethink our philosophy.
The Global Pandemic and Cisco Webex Solution
Prior to the pandemic, our teachers and students met in the same room, supported by complicated networks, software, and equipment. Our teachers managed students’ learning, IT professionals managed the technology, and administrators managed the operation. Everything worked as it should and there was, therefore, no need to change.
I currently serve as a teacher of Electronics and IT and provide instruction on Network and Computer Systems Design. My educational background was in Physics at the University of Messina, where I studied parallel computing and computational physics. At Ettore Majorana, I lead our partnership with Cisco Networking Academy, through which we teach networking, cybersecurity, IoT courses, and help students work toward obtaining ITE and CCNA certifications. Because of these experiences, I am very familiar with Cisco equipment.
When the first confirmed pandemic infection in Italy happened in January 2020, we were hardly prepared for the new reality. Less than a month later, several parts of northern Italy were under quarantine. Only weeks after this, the entire country was placed under restrictions, with about 60 million people under lockdown orders.
As the entire world awaited the inevitable second wave of infections, our school faced its own set of challenges. How could we safely educate our students with restrictions against meeting in person? We knew that overcoming this challenge required rethinking our entire education model. It would also mean finding the right technology solution.
Because we had already been working with Cisco products, we were familiar with their technology. We selected Webex as our distance learning solution because the product has extensive features. Webex offers great stability, even with abnormally large numbers of active users. They also have a wonderful range of session durations. These features alone were vital to maintaining a remote education program.
In addition, Webex also offered online session control, active management options, and the ability to implement in-form participant checks and surveys. Anyone who has been inside a classroom knows that teachers cannot educate unless they can maintain control and get students’ feedback. After all, almost any software can allow lectures. We had to maintain a dynamic environment to adequately educate our students.
Making the Adjustments
When the lockdown first happened, we responded by creating a working group to study how we could continue our education. The first step was to create a new set of goals. We decided that we wanted to continue the normal daily school timetable to encourage students’ consistency. School activities, such as homework and laboratory meetings, had to be adjusted to the new parameters. Since in-person meetings were limited, we knew we needed to move to distance learning and hold planning and other staff meetings online.
With Webex, we had a platform for online teaching, but we also needed to invest in teacher training. Preparing our staff was the real challenge. Nearly half of our teaching staff was completely unfamiliar with online teaching techniques, and only 2% were familiar with Webex. In addition, only those teachers in Telecommunications, Information Technology, Electronics, and Air Navigation were familiar with simulation software. Teachers in other subjects would have to be taught to use simulation software for laboratory work and this is still an open challenge.
We began by first forming a team of eight Webex instructors, six of which were already teaching Cisco technologies through the Networking Academy. We assigned each instructor two groups of 11 colleagues and charged them with providing a 45-minute session per each group. The idea was to quickly get everyone up to speed on Webex functions. They also had to learn how to record a session, use annotation tools, statistics, and student polls to evaluate their pupils.
Those of us teaching IT had to continue the Cisco CCNA1 and CCNA2 certifications. Fortunately, Luca Lepore, Cisco Corporate Business Development Manager, and our local Cisco Networking Academy Support Center, ICT Learning Solutions, both helped us to build an online protocol for the exams. The protocol included keeping the webcam on, controls on students’ movement, wearing and using microphones and headphones only for instructor communications. Of course, all this had to be put in place in an environment of everyday uncertainty because of the pandemic.
Returning to Class and Looking to the Future
Eventually, the Italian government gave educational institutions a number of options. Our school chose the most ambitious solution, involving all students returning to their classrooms daily to complement the ongoing online learning system. We accomplished this by creating a number of protocols for our in-person learning facilities. Class sizes were reduced, and students’ movements and class times were coordinated to minimize contact.
Part of the challenge was to create a hybrid educational model involving both online and in-person sessions. The interesting thing about this new hybrid approach is that it will have benefits beyond the pandemic. Unlike previous generations, our current crop of students was raised learning online. This generation has already learned significantly more materials from screens than books, meaning they are already prepared for the challenges of digital communication. The task then was not preparing the students but preparing the institution.
We had to learn how to balance the distribution of traditional classroom lectures and online activities. For some classes, for example, a lecture on basic theory is taught online and students practise in person inside laboratories. Webex is a wonderful tool because it can be used from home or inside the classroom to maintain physical distancing. For example, I am able to help students with Python code or a Packet Tracer simulation from two separate computer terminals while being in the same laboratory.
We especially found the Networking Academy and Webex annotation tools valuable. Networking Academy is a global IT and cybersecurity education program. It has 11,800 academies around the world in 180 countries and is a vital part of our students’ education curriculum. The annotation toolbar in Webex is one of the most powerful tools for educators. These mechanisms allow us to highlight important content with text, lines, shapes, or colors. This function makes the difference between simple lectures and dynamic presentations to students.
Lessons from Our Educational Shift
Many of us in the education space have been reminded of two simple keys to remaining great educators in the current crisis. First, we always need to stay ahead of the curve. We owe it to our students to remain up to date on the latest technologies and teaching methods. We can never afford to become complacent.
During this time, I personally found the Cisco updates and news critical to keeping up with the current events. News of best practices for things like IT, IoT, and network systems seem to change weekly, and we have to stay on top of those changes.
In addition, we always need moments to refocus our attention on the student learning process. As educators, it can be easy to solely focus on the material. Given the stress and uncertainty of our students, it is especially critical now to focus on student feedback via Webex surveys and polls. Even if this feedback is solicited anonymously, we have to pay attention to our students’ needs.
Regardless of when this pandemic ends, or how it will end, we will need a new generation of professionals and leaders ready to join the world. We are confident that we are teaching those leaders using the best curriculum and tools available today.