Building Higher Education Collaboration—Even During a Crisis
Organisations are always keen to identify their differentiators, and universities are no different. One of the unique features of Bath Spa University is the grounds of the campus itself. Where many institutes of higher education are located in concrete jungles, Bath Spa is like the Downton Abbey of universities. Students learn against a backdrop with a castle, an old manor house, and even a lake that was landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
It’s a stunning place to work every day. This environment also lends itself to the types of courses our 9,000 students pursue. These are mainly subjects in the creative arts, including writing, music, and drama.
Collaboration Was Always on the Backburner
I joined Bath Spa University eight years ago as a stop on my career pathway as a network engineer. During my time here, I have put myself through training to get my Cisco certifications—both CCNA and CCNP. Then, in late 2015, I was offered the role of network manager. Over time, my role has changed along with the university itself, which has added several new campuses.
Like many other universities, we’ve historically focused on the in-person learning experience, which means our education took the form of on-site lectures and classes rather than digital learning options. Our internal staff communication was very heavily analog as well. We held typical face-to-face meetings, but most of our on-site communications were done through traditional telephony desk phones.
We had a few video conferencing endpoints on campus, which we used infrequently for video meetings, interviews, and remote guest lectures, as well as for various film and media subjects. The problem was, they were based in specific rooms so you had to be in those rooms to use them. This was very limiting, and space was sometimes a concern, especially when those rooms were already in use and others wanted to use the equipment.
In addition, neither staff nor students had easy access to video conferencing or group messaging, let alone advanced features like whiteboarding and screen sharing. Occasionally, someone might use Google Hangouts or Google Meet, but there were no real unified communications solutions.
More broadly speaking, we were also dealing with an outdated network. Particularly from a security point of view, our systems were not equipped for modern campus life and its mixture of corporate devices and BYODs. When you’ve got a system that cannot be updated, any BYOD is technically insecure and shouldn’t be used for business or sensitive systems. You need that segregation and a secure cloud solution. We were lucky to have never experienced any real security threats, because there was nothing we could have done to prevent attacks.
For years, we intended to move forward to create a truly modern, secure network and collaboration environment, but something more pressing always came along. The phone system kept being pushed to the back burner until we reached a breaking point where the vendor no longer offered patches and version updates. Finally, we were forced to address our network issues and enhance our collaboration offerings for both students and faculty.
Our Partner Already Understood Our Needs
We had worked with a partner, ITGL, on a recent project implementing Cisco Meraki at our new campus on Locksbrook Road. Locksbrook is now one of our three main campuses, with Newton Park and Sion Hill School of Art and Design forming a ring topology. We then have another six or seven campuses and student accommodation buildings linking back to the ring.
ITGL helped us out tremendously with that project. They visited us on-site to catch up and chat about the successes of Meraki just at the time when we were finally confronting our issues with our communications system. When they asked if we had any other projects in mind, we told them about how we wanted to focus on network security and allowing for more collaborative tools. It was then that ITGL first suggested Cisco Webex.
Webex combined everything we needed from a communications point of view. Deploying Webex enabled video conferences to be held anywhere, including staff offices and other rooms that previously did not have the capability. We could now have a space for students and academics to liaise and collaborate with faculty—and for staff and faculty to collaborate with each other—wherever they were. ITGL was just as eager as we were to get started.
Going Above and Beyond to Deploy Quickly
We were incredibly lucky to have ITGL on our side, because just as we’d begun our Webex discussions, the coronavirus pandemic forced everyone into lockdown. We had approximately two weeks to get Webex up and running across campus.
Our initial plan was just to provide enhanced tools for collaboration in classrooms. That all changed when campus closed and students and staff needed to collaborate from home. We’ve had to put in a new VPN solution. ITGL went above and beyond during deployment, bringing in their own support and working well into the evenings most days because they understood the urgency of this project.
But ITGL’s help has gone far beyond those initial two weeks. Many departments were furloughed during the lockdown and so they weren’t working at all. Now, people are returning to work and trickling back onto campus, needing access to Webex and support as they learn about the new products at their disposal. ITGL has been on hand to provide the necessary training and guidance.
In addition to this, we’ve also rolled out Cisco Umbrella to provide DNS-level security. With more people working from home or in various other unsecured networks, we have a greater need to protect users wherever they access the internet. We have begun to set up alerts and policies in certain places to block threats.
Then, for anyone using our network—especially students—we have alerts for certain activities. Students have a right to privacy, and the freedom to research and explore is a pillar of academia. As such, you don’t want to keep the reins too tight when it comes to monitoring traffic and other activity. Still, all universities in the UK have a legal responsibility to flag when students visit certain sites as part of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy.
Monitoring is also integral to our larger duty of care to anyone on our network. We care tremendously for our students’ wellbeing, and we can now use Umbrella to flag patterns of online behaviour that would suggest a student needs help. If the student welfare team can get involved early with someone in distress, it could make all the difference.
Early Praise and Preparations for an Uncertain Future
While we are still in the early days of collaboration, the general feedback is that people love Webex. They find it easy to use, and much better than our previous limited offerings. In the past, we always had to provide a high level of administration. With Webex, people can add files and content, and can integrate it with their calendar. Users like the ability to join and leave groups by themselves, as well as the functionality of everything being in one place. For our own IT team at Bath Spa University, it has enabled our service desk to work as a remote team. I know it has been useful for our student information desk as well.
The future is uncertain, but as more people return to campus, we expect to see more users engaging with Webex and collaborating on more projects. We’re putting a lot of thought and resources into remote learning. It’s difficult for something so tactile as a pottery class, but we’re doing as much as we can. I think further developing Umbrella is going to be a longer-term process, but there’s a lot of possibility there.
Webex is helping us to prepare for the upcoming academic year as well. We’ve set up a call centre for contacting prospective students using the Webex client. This is incredibly important for the university, because it could mean a 10% or even 15% increase in enrollment. Having that edge in our call centre could make the difference, since we are also in competition with all the other universities for these students.
With the Right Tools, There’s No Reason to Feel Isolated
To any IT professionals considering implementing a collaboration environment for the first time, my advice is to make sure you connect with a good support partner who knows that product. There are a lot of people out there who are very keen to sell you something that, when it comes down to it, doesn’t always do what you expect or isn’t compatible with your existing setup.
This has been a big project, but partnering with ITGL and using Cisco solutions means I have peace of mind. The products will work the way they’re promised, and we have great support in our corner.
At this moment when everyone feels a bit alone and out of touch, Webex has brought everybody closer together. We’re all less isolated now. We have team and department meetings every week, but we also have purely social interactions through Webex, just to keep that connection going. It feels good, especially to know that we’ve provided for students in a way that we were never able to before.
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