From Shifting Earth to Shifting Paradigms: How Webex Helped Our University Overcome an Earthquake
On October 26, 2016, two powerful earthquakes shook Central Italy. Four days later, a third, even more powerful quake rocked an already devastated region. The last, which registered at 6.5, was the largest Italian earthquake since 1980. An estimated 100,000 people were left homeless.
Because of the epicenter’s proximity to the center of the city, many houses and old structures collapsed entirely. Other buildings were still standing but deemed too dangerous to allow people inside. In addition to the unsafe conditions, rampant power and communications failures meant the entire city center was completely closed by the third quake.
This being modern times, the entire sequence of events was captured by a collection of cell phone videos and news reports. The internet remains rife with images of destroyed ancient buildings and entire medieval neighborhoods reduced to rubble.
Among the many institutions impacted by this catastrophe was the . Several of the University structures located in the city center were damaged, and hundreds of students were impacted by the complete loss of safe housing near the campus. In the immediate term, many students were left completely homeless.
In the long term, our university faced a crisis. It could take years before the city was able to completely rebuild. How could we find a way to continue operations in the face of this disaster?
Dealing with the Aftershock
Established in 1336, the University of Camerino is one of the oldest universities in the world. We currently host more than 8,000 students and over 600 teaching and administrative staff. In response to our recruitment efforts and excellent science and technology curriculum, recent years saw a significant increase in international students. We have repeatedly ranked at or among the best universities in Italy with fewer than 10,000 students.
When the third earthquake hit on October 30th, our school was brought to a grinding halt. Many students with homes in Italy or nearby countries had to return home. Most international students were left stranded with no means of long-distance travel.
When our school’s leadership met to plan out our response, we were faced with a difficult choice. On the one hand, it would have been much easier to just close the school for a while. On principle, the entire world would likely understand the decision to close the doors.
From a practical standpoint, however, closing presented a number of difficulties. First, as much as the attending students loved the school, many would have to transfer if the school closed. Closing for even one semester would mean a significant drop in the number of attending students. Many students without alternative options were counting on the school to find a way to continue instruction. These students simply could not afford to wait for a rebuilding effort.
Second, the University of Camerino is larger than the city of Camerino itself. In many ways, the school was the actual lifeblood of the city. Closing the university would add additional financial devastation to the already insurmountable physical destruction caused by the catastrophe. The combination of the natural disaster and university closing could be a calamity the city could not survive.
Finally, excuse or not, closing the school could mean halting an institution that was more than seven hundred years old. These administrators would be remembered as the first generation that gave up.
Forced to Rethink Our Approach to Education
Working within a university steeped in hundreds of years of tradition, it is not hard to understand why we did little e-learning prior to 2016. However, it is often difficult to stick to the traditional road when the road itself has crumbled.
As Vice Rector for Education, I was part of the leadership team to create a survival plan. Prior to the earthquake, our e-learning processes were a bit cumbersome. They required professors to submit support materials in advance and record video lectures in a studio. Professors could then create exercises to be done online.
With the entire city center inaccessible, we needed a simpler way to continue everyday instruction. Fortunately, we had several buildings outside the condemned areas. In the days following the earthquake, we began moving administrative offices and preparing to host classes in new buildings.
However, things were not so easy for many students. Much of the student housing was contained in the areas already destroyed. In fact, we estimated that about 2,000 students lost their accommodation. While we could eventually get classes and operations running, a large percentage of students could not move back into town without further infrastructure and housing. The students who could move back were waiting for updates from us before a return. Already late for the start of the semester, they needed a tool to get classes underway.
A Helping Hand
Fortunately, the University of Camerino was already using products through the Informatics faculty. We contacted Cisco, apprised them of the situation, and asked them if they could help. Cisco then introduced us to the platform.
Webex is a virtual meeting application that allows people in different locations to hold meetings online. The application requires little more than a device and an internet connection. Through Webex, Cisco could provide us with a potential means to create an online instruction program that could be maintained until the city’s infrastructure was operational.
Because Webex is compatible with other software platforms like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, it would allow professors to share notes and presentations on their computers. The video portion could let students see physical demonstrations and chalkboard notes. Finally, the platform also offered feedback mechanisms that could facilitate question-and-answer interactions with students.
In response to the emergency conditions, Cisco also offered to provide the platform at a significantly discounted cost. This component of the partnership was vital. Ravaged by a natural disaster, we were not exactly in a position to spend large amounts of money on an e-learning initiative. The fact that Cisco realized this situation and was willing to help says a lot about the company. They shared our commitment to preparing our future leaders for success.
Within a matter of weeks, Cisco was training professors to present online instruction. They also provided coaching to around thirty graduate students in Informatics. These students would serve as tutors to assist students and professors with any difficulties using the platform.
We provided each professor with microphones and cameras that could be directly connected to personal computers. This was a vast improvement over the prior need for recording studios. Students could connect using personal computers, tablets, or even phones.
Up and Running in Weeks
Three weeks after the complete devastation of Camerino, the first law classes were being held over Webex. We started with law classes because they largely involved only lectures. Days after this success, we began adding classes requiring multimedia and presentations.
In about a month, we were fully integrated into the online learning world. We had more than 1,000 students regularly connecting to classes, representing nearly every student displaced by the disaster. But even more than that, student surveys demonstrated that they enjoyed e-learning. Most responses indicated that students didn’t feel they were missing quality instruction by being remote, and test scores did not suffer.
In about a month, we had accomplished the impossible. We moved from no online classes to offering multiple graduate-level classes and most undergraduate classes in an online capacity. Our students, faculty, and staff, all appreciated the firm commitment to the continuation of classes. This miracle was accomplished due to the incredible work and positive attitudes of our staff and Cisco’s solutions.
The Future of Online and Offline Learning
Despite our success with this e-learning initiative, we still heavily believe in the value of face-to-face instruction. It’s not our goal to become an online-only university. After more than seven hundred years, the school has certainly earned its reputation for understanding the characteristics of quality instruction.
However, we also have no intention of returning to the classroom-only reality. We have realized the potential of tapping into the world of online instruction. Future plans include providing methods to allow students to replay recorded lessons after classes are over. This will allow students to learn at their own pace, while ensuring we keep with our traditions.
In a way, our experience reflects the realities of human learning. While we all know the value of keeping an open mind, it can be difficult to accept changes without cause. The reality is, growth often requires change. Humans and seven-hundred-year-old institutions must both be willing to grow toward our common futures.