How the University of Luxembourg Built the Classroom of Tomorrow, Today
Collaboration is one of the greatest ways to learn, and the pandemic made collaboration particularly challenging. Luckily, technology offered new and creative ways to ensure that teaching and learning can take place in an enriched and flexible collaborative environment.
At the , we had most of the necessary technology in place prior to 2020. Instead of having to start from scratch like many other universities, we simply upgraded and added to our existing digital collaboration solution. These changes have given us many more options and opportunities going forward.
A Young University That Learns Fast
The University of Luxembourg was founded in 2003, and it is the only public university in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Although the university is young, we have from a very early stage established ourselves as a distinctly international, multilingual, and interdisciplinary institution that is strongly technology-oriented. Being such a young higher education institution allows us to build systems and digital infrastructure from the ground up to support the latest technology for our students.
I know how much our students rely on technology, having been a student here myself. In August 2019, I was hired by the IT department as a Project Manager while I completed my studies. One of my first projects was to help establish IT Helpdesk for Students, a walk-in IT support centre for students.
With this project and others, I got hands-on experience while helping build infrastructure that the University needed. The greatest part of that infrastructure came from . The university's partnership with Cisco began long before I joined. We had numerous Cisco telephony and networking solutions, so it also made sense to make greater use of their collaboration tools, too, beginning with and Webex Teams in 2017.
Within a couple of years, we started experimenting with a few and Webex Board devices, mostly within the IT Department, then expanding to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust and the Faculty of Law, Economics and Finance. We have three campuses across the country, housing many buildings, and by the end of 2019, a massive rollout got underway to equip more meeting rooms with Webex equipment thus facilitating cross-campus meetings. In collaboration with University of Luxembourg's Media Centre, we developed Meetings tutorials for the staff in early 2020 to foster the new tools' adoption.
A Quick Transition from In-Person to Online Instruction
Within a few months, the pandemic had made it too risky to continue holding classes in person. Luckily, we had already begun to scale up our Webex use, which further intensified once everyone went remote in March 2020.
Because we already had access to Webex devices and licenses, it was fairly easy for us to select Meetings as the collaboration tool of choice for all university students and educators. And because we had recently created Webex tutorials and resources, we could share them with our expanded user base.
Even though we chose to implement it because of our existing Cisco relationship, Meetings has a number of features that lend itself to one crucial building block of pedagogy: fostering an engaging classroom environment. These include breakout rooms, where students can seamlessly alternate to working together in smaller groups within the same meeting. The feature serves as a perfect example of a use case which demonstrates the way that digital can go above and beyond mirroring the offline teaching and learning practices, and even enhance them and induce change in course design.
Breakout rooms allow for a level of collaboration, engagement and monitoring that goes beyond breaking students into groups in a physical classroom. The students are not only able to work together from wherever they are, more efficiently (i.e. by using the screen sharing functionality) and without disturbing each other — but the instructor can also monitor each group's progress by moving seamlessly between the breakout rooms at a click of a button. The limitations that a physical space inevitably brings into the group work dynamic are overcome through a meaningful translation of a teaching and learning practice with the help of technology.
During the first few months of the pandemic, we all did the best we could to prepare an emergency remote teaching and learning infrastructure needed to sustainably support teaching and learning until the end of the academic year. Meetings allowed us to successfully continue to operate remotely. A much greater challenge, however, lay ahead of us.
A New Setup for a New Semester
We knew we had a handle on remote teaching and learning, so our biggest focus for the winter semester was to find a way to keep the campus alive while in compliance with social distancing and capacity restrictions. Under those restrictions, we could have in-person learning, but we had to cut the room capacity by 70%. Most of our seminar rooms only hold 20–25 people, which meant we could only have seven or eight people in a room. Some of our classes have 50, even 100, people in them, so there were few spaces in the university that could fit everyone while socially distant.
In July 2020, we began to explore a hybrid classroom model where some students, together with a teacher, were physically present in the classroom, and other students would attend the class remotely, via Meetings – while enabling seamless interaction between all participants. Using this hybrid model, we had the chance to bring students back to campus without having to engage into an overwhelmingly complex logistical exercise of reassigning classrooms.
In August 2020, Cisco Account Manager Arnaud Lhuillier showed us Cisco's proposal for our vision. While we explored alternative solutions, we decided to follow through with Cisco due to our existing knowledge of the Webex Meetings systems and our strong relationship. Only one month later, we began to transform our existing classrooms for our hybrid model.
Building the Webex Classroom
In September 2020 we secured funding and created what is now known as the Webex Classroom. In addition to the main screen in the front of the classroom, a second screen was added. It hosted our online students. This was a major upgrade to the vibe of the classroom: we aimed at creating that familiar feeling of togetherness in the learning environment.
Another addition was the . This device follows the professor around the classroom, zooming in when the teacher speaks so that students can see them more clearly. We also added the Cisco Quad Cam, which is focused on the students in the physical classroom. When a student in the room has a question or wants to comment, the Quad Cam zooms in on the specific student who is speaking, and the remote students have a more tangible connection with the student in the classroom.
To ensure the highest sound quality, we have ceiling microphones completed by a table microphone on the teacher's desk and another wireless microphone. We also added a touch screen on the teacher's table from where the teacher can control the meeting without even having to use their laptop. By adding more technology, students gained the ability to engage with each other and with the instructor, regardless of whether they were in-person or remote.
By October, 35 classrooms were equipped, and the remaining 24 installs stretched over November 2020 to February 2021. Eventually, we had created 59 Webex Classrooms. The uniform setup includes a defined set of screens, microphones and cameras to enhance communication and collaboration between teachers and students.
As soon the pandemic is no longer a primary concern, we will be able to accommodate various scenarios and circumstances for interactive lessons. Now people can feel like they are a part of the discussion, even if they aren’t physically present in the room.
A More Inclusive and Accessible Education
We built Webex Classrooms out of necessity, yet they offer flexibility that the university did not have before the pandemic. Students have provided far more comments about the setup for this tool than nearly anything else, probably because they now have flexibility in the way they attend classes, regardless of their personal situation.
Our professors have been nearly as enthusiastic as students. While they were willing to adapt during the pandemic, many of them had been hesitant before then. Many of our instructors, especially in non-IT-related fields, preferred to use more traditional hardware instead of immediately embracing new technologies. Once they had to acclimate to the new circumstances, teachers all made their own unique tweaks and changes, tailoring their approach to their own individual teaching methods.
What we found most impressive was how professors adapted course content and delivery. Some of them have taken to recording their lessons and posting the content on our LMS for their students to review at a later time. Now, whenever students have to miss a class, they can access the material they missed and ask questions after hours. This helps ensuring that students have the best opportunity to maximise their learning experience.
While there are a lot of benefits to in-person instruction, a hybrid educational experience offers more accessibility and is more inclusive than many other types of learning experiences. At this moment, the University of Luxembourg is defining how higher education will look like going forward. Students can now attend classes from anywhere, which means flexibility, inclusivity, accessibility and potential for collaboration with other institutions at levels that have been unreachable before. Meetings will help us realise the potential for more open and engaging ways of learning, and achieving our goal of being an international, multilingual, and multicultural community.
Potential for Change
The prospect for the future is to continue to increase adoption and enthusiasm for possibilities, the likes of which Webex Classroom is offering, from the bottom up. The hybrid learning model offers a unique chance to do so; it has created a different type of energy making users more open to innovation. Our ambition is to establish a network of teacher champions and ambassadors who would inspire their colleagues by sharing their experiences. We’ve had success with our Webex Classroom Testing Weeks—an “open door” model allowing professors to visit a fully-equipped classroom and engage in conversations with our IT support staff, as well as their colleagues who use the system. It is one of the major benefits of our university being so young; making these kinds of changes is significantly easier for us than it is for a large, older university or college.
We are undergoing a process of re-defining the way we utilise our learning spaces. Looking forward, we can be more flexible whenever inviting our numerous guest lecturers since we won’t have to bring them to the campus; they will be able to teach from wherever they are. I would also love to see Meetings help facilitate more student exchange programs, which could be offered through hybrid classes. If students can’t move to the campus, classes can be brought into their homes. A very promising use case currently under investigation involves connecting multiple Webex Classrooms, so that one teacher can deliver a course to a large cohort of students spread over multiple physical spaces.
Webex Classrooms have become an integral part of how we run the university. Now that we’ve seen what it has to offer, the future is brighter and more promising for our students and faculty.