Keeping Local Educational Connections Alive with a Global Solution
Everyone likes the idea that people can become something from nothing, but children often follow a marked path from childhood into their adult lives. Those who have adequate educational supports often find their way to a stable path, while those who don’t can fall through the cracks and stumble through life.
Three years ago, I founded to prevent more students from falling through the cracks and to eliminate school failure across all ages. We are an after-school center for language support and school studies, from the first year of primary school to the final level of high school.
Think Big is in The Basque Country, an area in the north of Spain known for its distinct language, history, culture, and landscape. In the heart of the region, not far from Bilbao, is Barakaldo. With the development of more houses in our community came new families with plenty of children who needed assistance with their studies.
I grew up here, and thought it would be the perfect place to start my business. We offer a wide range of services, including helping kids with homework and English conversation classes. Being in the Basque region, we have an additional complication, that is that Basque is an official teaching language here, though not everyone speaks it. This means that sometimes parents can’t help their children with their Basque homework. This is where we can also step in to help.
A Tight Timeline for a Tight-Knit Community
Think Big is more than just a tutoring center. My family still lives in Barakaldo, and because it’s my hometown, I know most of the parents and grandparents of my students. Even with the influx of new families, it’s still a very familiar place, and I’ve come to know many of the newcomers as well. Because of that, my clients are more than just my clients. I care about them and they trust me.
This is a tight-knit community in a small neighborhood. Up until recently, all of our sessions for our bunch of students were done in person, on site. That suited us just fine. I’ve never had ambitions to grow this into a big business, because the bigger a company gets, the less they’re connected to their customers. My business model isn’t about being big. It’s about providing a quality service in a place where that service didn’t exist before.
Our students are all local, so I never thought about needing a virtual component. Our customers obviously didn’t think of it either, because there was never a demand for it. But, like so many other businesses, our priorities shifted that second week of March when COVID-19 forced our community into lockdown.
Everything had changed, and quickly. Our immediate priority was to stay in contact with our students, but how? For the first two weeks, we tried using Skype. The big advantage to Skype is that it’s free, but the nonexistent price tag was also an advantage to everyone else on the planet who suddenly needed video calling services. As a result, the service was overloaded and didn’t work properly.
When it became clear Skype wouldn’t work, I also considered another free service: Google Hangouts. But my son was using Google Hangouts for school, and I figured that if most of the school systems were using it in their distance learning plans, it would likely be oversaturated as well.
That’s when a friend who works for IBM suggested I check out Cisco and their Webex platform. Luckily, Cisco was offering their Webex solution for free through an initiative called ProfeVirtual, which was put together by Cisco Networking Academy, IBM, and Makenai. This offering was designed for educators and would allow us to host Webex meetings—with no restrictions—for up to 1,000 participants. Webex would give Think Big a professional edge.
I joined Webex that same day, and created logins for myself and my teachers.
A Short Learning Curve for Parents and Teachers
Before we could help students on this platform, my teachers and I knew we had some learning to do ourselves. We had an internal Webex meeting with the intention of trying everything we could see on the screen. It was a very hands-on, trial-and-error type of learning where we played with every feature of the platform. It wasn’t difficult. We learned quickly, and felt confident using this as the basis of our instruction for the foreseeable future.
Despite how easy we found Webex to be, I was still nervous because I didn’t know if my students and families—my customers—would be able to handle something new on top of everything else that was happening. Would they come along with us on this journey of virtual instruction?
Those first few weeks were difficult, but the difficulties had nothing to do with Webex. I somehow became IT support for our entire student community, and was trying to assist my families with any technology challenges they had. In order to stop troubleshooting and increase buy in on the new platform, I created a small tutorial to help families with the basic setup. That helped immensely.
We powered through the first couple of weeks, and after that, it became seamless. I was no longer the help desk, and our students quickly became focused on the lessons.
With the Right Support, Helping Our Students Is Easy
Initially, I was so determined to eliminate any hurdles to adoption that I hadn’t thought much about how virtual teaching would be different. I had to trust my teachers’ judgment and hope for the best. But I needn’t have worried; teaching through the platform has been quite easy. My teachers found they didn’t have to change their methods very much at all.
For our English tuition and conversation classes, not much had to change because it has always been about group learning. For our subject-specific and homework help groups, my teachers have incorporated the use of whiteboards within the frame as necessary. They’ve prepared the online classes almost exactly the same as in-person lessons, which has given our students great consistency.
In a world where so much has changed for our students, we’ve also been able to keep the same class times and the same learning groups. This provides yet another layer of consistency.
Of our bunch of students, 75% continued with us on this journey with Webex through the end of the school year. The ones who haven’t were mostly preschool students who were simply too young to engage with a screen as a primary method of instruction or IT oversaturated kids who spent too many hours in front of a computer, since their school lessons lasted for many hours. Given this, I see our experience with Webex as a huge success. Because of Webex, it was like students were studying at our center without physically being at the center.
Going all in with a virtual platform so quickly was a big risk, but it paid off for us. The thing about having parents’ trust from the start is that they knew I was looking out for them. If I felt I could trust Webex, then they felt that they could, too. That’s what got us through those first few weeks when the world was shifting under our feet.
The feedback I’ve received from parents has been amazing. They appreciate that we worked quickly to establish a virtual approach without much downtime, and that’s purely because Webex was so intuitive and easy to use. As a small business owner, I don’t have any extra time on my plate, but I didn’t need much extra time to get up and running with Webex. And even though we received this service for free, Cisco support was there for us whenever we ran into an issue.
Ready and Waiting
The school year is now over and no one knows what is going to happen next. We don’t know yet whether students will be back to school in-person in September. It’s a period of uncertainty for everyone, and all we can do is wait.
My preference will always be to see our students in person, but in business, sometimes you have to be prepared for the unexpected. I know that whatever happens in the fall, with Webex we’ll be ready.
I’m so grateful that Cisco offered their service for free to small businesses like mine. It’s no exaggeration to say they saved my students, and my business.