Becoming a Beacon of Hope in Education by Starting with Collaboration


Legacy can be a complicated matter. Many higher education institutions around the world are hundreds of years old. For these universities, having such a rich history gives them a point of pride. However, the cost of that extended tenure may be the ability to adapt to the needs of the modern world. One of the main reasons I love working for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is that we were created with a powerful, modern mission.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wanted the institution to be a beacon for knowledge, peace, hope, and reconciliation. Founded in 2009, the school was the first mixed-gender campus in Saudi Arabia. With more than 100 separate cultures within the country, KAUST provided a unifying bridge toward a more modern future. Essentially, it was a rebirth of the legendary House of Wisdom in Baghdad that was destroyed in 1258. 

KAUST is entirely focused on graduate courses, with no undergraduate programs. Every attendee receives a scholarship, and the selection process is intense. The University selects every student based on a mix of grades, research experience, and expected contributions to the campus environment. We offer programs in three categories: Biological and Environmental Science; Computer, Electrical, and Mathematical Science; and the Physical Sciences.

But being a beacon of knowledge to the world takes more than teaching students. That is why our institution is equally committed to our research centers and building collaborations with organizations around the globe. We have well-established partnerships with corporate leaders like Boeing, IBM, and Dell. We have cooperative teaching agreements with universities like Oxford and Berkeley. We are particularly proud of our startup incubator which provides vital physical and software resources for new companies with great ideas.  

Collaboration doesn’t just happen. It needs to start with a foundation.

We believe we can use these tools to tackle human problems and change the world for the better. However, all this collaboration requires infrastructure. That is where I come in, and where we all depend on Cisco.

Tackling Collaboration

These days, it seems like collaboration is a buzzword that everyone wants to discuss. Unlike many other temporary trends, there truly is power in collaboration. Moving humanity forward takes building a synergy between educators, growing minds, and titans of industry. In my position as a collaboration specialist, I am charged with providing a variety of IT tools to support the school's efforts. We essentially serve as ambassadors between the people and the technology.

For example, KAUST has several professors that teach classes for students in other countries. We also have professors from other institutions throughout the world who teach our students. This is all accomplished through audiovisual streaming capabilities. Our corporate partners also depend on our services to communicate with other branches or locations around the world. That makes it easier to facilitate conversations between our students and the companies that will need competent future employees.

However, perhaps the largest potential impacts of our IT services are found in the support we provide for startup companies. Anyone who has worked with startups knows that finding the resources to support the beginning stages of a new idea is a difficult process. Everyone wants to support an already-winning project, but it is much more difficult to find risk-takers. On the other hand, bringing together minds from all over the world is bound to result in innovation. That is why it’s vital to offer support to students with ideas.

KAUST does not want the next world-changing innovations to fail simply because our students cannot afford a license for web conferencing equipment. We know that the success of our students bodes well for our institution, and furthers our mission. In addition to providing free workspace and access to Webex devices and software, we also facilitate research and development and offer direct startup funding.

One of our startup success stories is a company called Sadeem. The group began as a research project in 2011 determined to create sensors for smart cities. Today, they provide solar-powered wireless sensing devices. The devices can help urban areas to track traffic patterns and monitor waterways for potential floods. In 2016, the company ranked in Forbes Magazine as one of the fifty most promising startups in Saudi Arabia. Without the free resources provided by the University, the company likely would have remained an abstract idea shared by a few students. 

The Hardware and Software Pairing We Needed

It is interesting to read how some organizations first decided to use Cisco products. In a way, Cisco came to us rather than the other way around. From our start in 2009, we were using Tandberg teleconferencing products. At that time, we were also one of the first universities to use Acano as a platform for remote collaboration. However, today both companies are part of the Cisco catalog.

Don't get me wrong. We did not just accept Cisco without question after their acquisition of those platforms. As with any smart organization, we did our research and tested our options. We repeatedly found that no other company rivaled Webex solutions for collaboration.

Webex devices are among the best in the industry. They are easy to set up and use and incredibly reliable. Since we purchase these devices for the use of non-IT staff, it is great to have something they can generally manage.

We also use Webex Meetings extensively. This platform allows everything you need to work collaboratively from a distance. Team members can hold meetings online while sharing presentations and writing notes in real time right on the screen. Meeting minutes and other relevant files can be stored in one area, rather than requiring constant email searching.

Find collaboration solutions that meet your users where they are.

What is also great is that Cisco allows integration with other software. Since we work with a number of partners, it is always likely that people are used to different applications. We are happy that Cisco hardware that can be utilized by people who insist on continuing to use Zoom or Skype. Microsoft Office products can also integrate well with Webex solutions. That gives us powerful flexibility in building collaborations.

Building to the Client

One thing that speaks to the change within the IT world is that we can now provide solutions based on customer needs. In the old days, people had to work around existing technology. If you wanted to hold a meeting with people in remote locations, you may have to set up a conference call and arrange separate software to show presentations. Documents were often emailed separately. Everyone had to sign up to use the same software and call into the same line.

Today, people contact a collaboration specialist with their needs, and we provide them with a solution using our tools. Inviting other members to a remote meeting is generally as easy as sending out a web link to the participants. There is no need for participants to download new software. Everything is completely scalable, and we pay one license fee. That is simplicity defined and our budget people love that the cost is predictable.

To expand collaboration’s reach, KAUST hosts regular meetings to expose end users to the benefits.

At least twice a month, we set up presentation programs to expose people to the benefits of our communication tools. These presentations almost always lead to multiple direct requests for more extended training. 

We also conduct yearly sessions where we invite staff in to talk about their needs. We don't talk technology at these meetings. We just discuss how these professionals could enhance their operations and partnerships. These meetings allow us to maintain our ability to grow according to the school's needs. By properly supporting their needs, we allow them to reach for the stars.

Growing and Adapting

Over the years, we’ve continued to grow with our usage of Webex devices. We’ve ordered some Webex Boards for classrooms, conference rooms, and professors’ offices. We’ve also installed Webex Room Kit Pro and we’re looking into Webex Room Panorama, which will help us create an immersive experience in our conference rooms. A recently launched KAUST Softphone initiative harnesses Webex Calling to provide flexibility to our staff. Now, they can access their office extension anywhere, including any features they had on their desk phone. 

All of these solutions have helped KAUST build a strong collaboration foundation. Like every other educational organization, the pandemic forced KAUST to adapt. Our staff were forced to use collaboration tools, whether or not they wanted to. Some educators may be resistant to change their systems, but the pandemic necessitated new approaches to work. Luckily, our educators are resilient and made the best use of the new tools at their disposal.  

Feeling the Impact

I think perhaps the best feeling in life is knowing you are having a positive impact. I know that the KAUST mission has the potential to change the world. It will definitely change the destiny of Saudi Arabia and the surrounding countries. I am originally from Jordan, and I came to KAUST because I realized the immense potential from afar. 

The collaboration efforts between companies and the University have already resulted in some real research and development results. Each of our startups has the potential to solve real human problems. I love the feeling of knowing my role as a collaboration specialist, serving a great University with a noble mission.

But let us be honest. The measure of IT success is not whether or not we are satisfied. As a support team, the measure of a working solution is the satisfaction of the mission-critical units within the University. I know our impact is earnest because we make new fans of Cisco's tools every day.

Together, we are all prepared to develop into a world-changing institution. I believe the ancient House of Wisdom would be proud to consider us heirs.