Providing Continuity of Education in a Virtual Space
Continuity is critical in education. From helping set children's expectations to providing a foundation for all future educational experiences, continuity can establish how engaged children will be in their own education. Interruptions and deviations from the norm can make students frustrated and less interested in learning.
When the pandemic ushered in a period of uncertainty, social isolation, and heightened anxiety, it threatened educational continuity for students. Some schools established enhanced safety measures that allowed some students to attend classes, but many students around the world left school entirely without a plan in place for their return.
Our schools, on the other hand, already had a solution that provided our students with the continuity they needed to be successful in their schooling.
Two Schools, One Platform
The College of Computer Science and Business Communications eMPIRICA is a private college in Bosnia and Herzegovina where students acquire professional knowledge, skills, and competencies in the field of information and communication technologies and business. It’s also a longtime Cisco Networking Academy. Muhdin Mujačić founded eMPIRICA College in 2012, and he’s one of the longest-running Cisco CCNA instructors in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Samra Mujačić is the owner of STEM Academy, a school for children ages 6–18. At STEM Academy, we provide kids an education geared toward the digital age in which they live, focusing on programming, robotics, engineering, logic, and electronics. At both STEM Academy and eMPIRICA College, we provide exceptional educational experiences to our students.
At eMPIRICA College, we’ve always used Webex Meetings as our collaboration platform. In addition to traditional in-person courses on campus, Meetings allowed us to offer distance lectures, which has been important since we provide distance learning study programs along with traditional studies. In addition, some of our professors live in other countries, like Slovenia, Serbia, and Austria. This hybrid approach to education has been a critical part of our operations for years, and it’s meant that our students can better customize their educational experience based on their individual needs.
An Interruption to Education as Usual
Keeping in mind that Meetings and processes were already in place at eMPIRICA College to provide an exclusively distance learning experience when the pandemic struck, we switched to distance learning completely within 12 hours. At STEM Academy, however, we simply couldn’t conduct our regular in-person classes for our 110 students. We paused the program for two weeks, hoping that we could resume classes as normal after that.
Of course, that was not to be, and we had to figure out what our educational model would look like for the foreseeable future. This was difficult because young children tend to learn better in person, and we knew that continuity is also essential at that age. Because we were amply equipped with the technology and experience to move all of these students to a virtual program, we made the move. Within one week of deciding to switch to a completely distance learning model, and expand our use of Meetings to STEM Academy, we were ready to go.
Students and staff at eMPIRICA College easily made the transition to a remote environment. The problem for our STEM Academy students and staff was that they were not as proficient with Meetings. The children, obviously, had little reason to use it before, and their parents had varying degrees of proficiency. When we switched to Meetings, we started training from the top down, beginning with our instructors. After a lot of behind-the-scenes activities and training, we held our first class—which was spent teaching students and their parents how to use the platform.
Hands-on experiences are a key tenant of our education at STEM Academy. The pandemic made this aspect of education so much more difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. It wound up being an exercise in creativity and improvisation for our instructors. In the end, we established a number of online activities that could be done while in the Meetings classroom.
We admit that we were doubtful how successful the move to an entirely virtual classroom would be. Children are so tactile and they also learn from their peers when in a shared learning space. Knowing this, we were completely surprised by just how well the younger kids took to the technology. For most of them, it wasn’t a barrier at all, and since they were so receptive to the new learning method, we delivered our normal curriculum through Meetings without any further disruptions for the rest of the 2020 school year.
Integrating Meetings with Our LMS and Finding Unexpected Cost Savings
We didn’t have to start from scratch at eMPIRICA College, but we still had some work to do to integrate all of our classes with eCampus, our learning management system (LMS). Prior to the pandemic, professors would record every lecture and embed them to eCampus learning materials, and they continued this practice with the new classrooms. When students have to miss a class, they can still get all of the details of what was taught and discussed from the recording. This increased flexibility is one of the things that students loved about moving to a virtual space. That continuous access to lessons and other materials not only allows students who missed class to catch up, but it also makes it a lot easier for them to study.
During this period, eMPIRICA College launched the lifelong learning program that we developed within the MarketMakers program supported by the Swiss Embassy. We delivered the entire program virtually, and it was so successful that we decided to continue with a virtual delivery even after in-class lessons resume. Offering this learning program virtually lets us reach students across the country instead of only benefiting the people who live near our physical campus.
One thing that we didn’t expect was the cost savings of a virtual learning structure. We have two locations in Brčko and Tuzla. Before, eMPIRICA College paid our lecturers for teaching at two locations, but when we moved to virtual instruction, the cost was halved because they only delivered one lesson and it was delivered virtually.
Professors have also become more efficient when teaching many of the IT-related subjects. In classrooms, only the professor had a device and shared the code with their students, so they didn’t get the same hands-on experience with the IT subjects. When learning virtually, students can learn faster because they can access code editors on their own devices so all of the content becomes interactive and could be shared among all Meeting participants. However, it doesn’t cost the school because the devices are owned by individual students.
Comparing In-Person to Virtual Learning
For teachers, engaging students in the physical classroom is much easier than in a virtual classroom, but it is just as important to ensure students are both engaged and interacting while they are working remotely. In some cases, however, classes at eMPIRICA College became more interactive because students felt more comfortable in their home settings. They weren’t intimidated by others and weren’t as hesitant to reach out to their professors with any questions. Virtual learning via Meetings removed this barrier for some students, improving their overall learning experience.
For our younger students at STEM Academy, it was more of a challenge, but we saw quieter students open up and warm to the experience quickly. It also didn’t take them as long to acclimate because they are a generation that has always had digital technology.
In September 2020, we added a Webex Board to campus, giving educators a new tool to incorporate into their instruction if they wanted another way to interact. At eMPIRICA College, a lot of professors, especially math ones, used a whiteboard or chalkboard. While some teachers were content with the Meeting features, like screen sharing, to engage students, some professors missed the physical tools they used to have. The new Board allows those teachers to easily write formulas and then to work out problems in a way that everyone can see.
The Inevitable Return and a New Approach to Learning
In the fall of 2020, students returned to in-person classrooms, but the spring of 2021 brought another lockdown and forced students and staff back into virtual classrooms. This time around, the 90 students and 12 lecturers at STEM Academy, as well as the 250 students and 25 professors at eMPIRICA College, were very familiar with the benefits of Meetings and the Board. Everyone made the switch even more seamlessly than before.
We plan to return to the in-person model at STEM Academy as soon as possible, but eMPIRICA College will continue to use a hybrid model with Meetings, adjusting the delivery model for certain subjects to make the most out of both in-person and virtual time. We also want to use Meetings to offer even more lectures from experts without needing them to come to the campus.
The pandemic could have been incredibly detrimental to the education of all of our students. Without Meetings, educational programs at both schools would’ve been asynchronous, which has poorer learning outcomes. Cisco gave us the ability to stay with our students in a virtual space and continue our educational programs in the most efficient way possible. In the midst of uncertainty, everyone stayed focused on education, and we are pleased with just how much we were able to continue the education of students and families with a sense of safety and consistency.