In Pursuit of Technological Innovation: How We Expanded Our Digital Learning Horizons with Webex Events

CISCO

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a well-established reputation for its modern design and luxury lifestyles. More recently, we’ve also built a reputation for our education and innovation.


Zayed University (ZU) is known for excellence in educational innovation, research, and student leadership development that serves the changing needs of the region. ZU has two campuses—one in Abu Dhabi and one in Dubai—and has become one of the top UAE universities in terms of number of students and types of programs offered. Over the past decade, ZU has become increasingly more selective in our areas of expertise, student academic levels, and programs.


With approximately 2,300 students, ZU’s College of Technological Innovation is now the second-largest college in the university. It boasts one of the region’s largest cybersecurity programs, which emphasizes practical components and hands-on courses. These teachings lead to real-world outcomes in the community. 


I came to ZU in 2011 with a background in engineering, telecommunication IT, and security. I joined as an assistant professor, and then moved to a management position in 2015 when I became Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. In 2020, I was promoted to the Associate Dean of the College of Technological Innovation.

Connect, Upskill, and Innovate Through Collaboration

As part of our vision at ZU, we’ve established partnerships with several companies that are industry leaders in the same fields as our programs. Through collaboration with these companies, our students receive the latest industry knowledge while they enhance and develop their skills. 


One of these partnerships is with Cisco. The match makes a lot of sense; the College of Technological Innovation focuses on networking and security, and Cisco has a strong global reputation for strength in these areas. It also helps that ZU is the site of a Cisco Regional Networking Academy and our college also has a specialized program that provides training for Cisco CCNA certification. 

By engaging students with up-to-date knowledge of network components and configuration, they are ready to slingshot into the workforce as capable, confident IT security and networking experts.


In 2015, in order to better integrate Cisco into our courses, we moved to a lab-based lecture format, where we separated theory from the labs. These labs are Cisco-based, so a student studies, earns credits for their lab work, and receives their Cisco certification at the end. We want to certify as many students as possible.


Our student body consists mainly of local Emirati students. By engaging our students with up-to-date knowledge of network components and configuration, they are ready to slingshot into the workforce as capable, confident IT security and networking experts. And since Cisco is so well known and used in the region, these newly graduated specialists have an easy transition into the workplace. The technology they use every day within the college is the exact same as what they will use at work. 

The Rush to Embrace Online Events

Beginning in February 2020, the UAE and the rest of the world moved to online teaching in response to the global pandemic. At the time, we were in the midst of organizing our annual Undergraduate Research Conference on Applied Computing. This is a major regional college conference not only for UAE students, but also for international undergraduate students.


The original plan was to organize the in-person conference for March 2020, as we always have. But with these new constraints, we weren’t sure how to hold the conference or whether we should host it at all. Rather than cancel the event outright, my team and I make a quick decision to move it online—despite having no prior experience with organizing any kind of virtual event. ZU was built to foster educational innovation, but we’ve always had a very traditional, hands-on culture of learning. We had to begin from scratch and explore different platforms to see which would make the most sense for our needs. 


Despite our long-standing partnership with Cisco, we only knew Webex Events by name. When we learned about the flexibility of the platform and that it could be used for educational purposes, we started discussions with Cisco about Events as a possible option for our event. Right off the bat, Cisco was very helpful. They offered to handle all backend support for anything Events related during the conference.


Virtual platforms weren’t a part of our typical student experience, so skills related to online learning and presentations weren’t ubiquitous. Because of this, we wanted to train our staff and student presenters in Events prior to the conference. However, very little training was required because the Events platform is simple to navigate.

Maintaining High Levels of Engagement and Interaction 

It’s a challenge to replicate the experience of a physical, face-to-face conference, and we were concerned a virtual event might be not attractive for students and other attendees. Therefore, we set a priority to keep everyone engaged in a number of different ways.


Parallel sessions let students jump into another session going on at the same time. This helped maintain and even increase engagement. Sometimes we had four or five sessions in parallel. Each presentation was about 10 minutes, so within the five parallel sessions, there would be 30 presentations each hour. By giving conference attendees more possibilities, they weren’t locked into a session and they could explore other presentations that might interest them. 

It's a challenge to replicate a physical conference experience with a virtual one. Top priority is to keep attendees engaged.


We scheduled interactive activities at both the beginning and the end of the day. Morning activities included meetings to discuss the day’s agenda, chat, network and ask questions. We also used features within Events that facilitated attendee interactions during sessions and presentations, such as polls. In addition, we integrated modules inside Events, including pre-recorded videos alongside live sessions.


It was an intensive two-day conference and we hosted about 1,000 attendees. At the end of the final conference session, we conducted a short survey where we asked conference attendees about their experiences. We weren’t surprised when we saw a lot of positive comments about how the conference was organized and how effective it was within the shortened time frame. 


We’re proud that we created such a positive experience for attendees, especially since we didn’t have much time to change the entire plan from a physical conference to a virtual one.

A Pivot to Digital-First Experiences

We didn't stop with that first conference. Events continues to help ZU host a variety of events and meetings of all sizes. It was easy to adapt what we learned about Events to Webex Meetings and to use both depending on the situation. 


Out of that previous success at the conference, Events has successfully expanded to several different use cases at the university level. We used Events to virtually organize all our senior capstone project days for the last three semesters. We’ve organized student meet and greets at the beginning of each semester. The university also now uses the same technology for our general gathering of faculty, staff, and management at the beginning of each semester. It was an easy decision for us as a university and as a college to move all our meetings to a digital format using Events.


News of our successes with Events has spread. Another professor heard about the applied science conference and reached out to me for help using Events to host a language and literacy conference in another college, as well as professional development seminars. Her teams now use Events for their virtual events almost weekly.


The scalability, security, and robust nature of Events and Meetings means it not only fits our immediate needs, but it has allowed us to adapt to our new virtual environment where we can easily conduct meetings and organize virtual events. A year ago, Events and Meetings were virtually unknown within our ecosystem. But just one year later, they are familiar to all 70 of our faculty and our 2,300 students. In May 2021, we will use Events to run our conference again, and we look forward to building upon our previous success.

The Pursuit of Future Learning in the Present

Our strong partnership with Cisco ensures our students remain engaged in digital learning environments and aligned with industry developments so they’re prepared for the professional world. Events provides us with the flexibility to cope with changes in this new learning environment. Without it, teaching, learning, and daily operations would’ve been negatively impacted.


ZU is proud to be a model for other universities. Our strategic partnership with Cisco isn’t static—it has been active and growing over many years. It’s what has helped the college attract students and remain competitive with other programs in the region while concurrently helping students be competitive as they enter the workforce. Best of all, we see the fruits of our labor in the successes of our students.