Staying Connected and Collaborative During an Emergency with Cisco Webex
Video has the power to connect people in a way that more traditional means of communication can’t. Even before the current global pandemic, people used video as a way to stay connected with friends, family members, and colleagues as everyone moves further apart. The pandemic, however, has highlighted the need to stay connected with people who are suddenly physically disconnected—even if they’re nearby. Whatever direction the world is headed, video collaboration will be increasingly vital to how information is shared and the way we connect to one another. At University of Lübeck, we know this all too well.
The University of Lübeck is a research university in northern Germany that focuses almost entirely on medicine and sciences with medical applications. We are a concentrated university, not a large university; with a student body of 5,000 and a staff of 1200, we have long emphasized the benefits of students being on campus and learning in person. As a result, we traditionally had not offered any formal distance learning.
With that said, we are always looking for ways to stay current and connected. Sometimes, things happen and for whatever reason, students can’t always be on campus. A student might have an accident and need time to recover, for example, or they might need to return to their home country for a family event. This is why, in the pre-pandemic world, we began investigating options to make our lectures digitally accessible.
More Than Videoconferencing, We Needed Collaboration
I joined the University of Lübeck in 2014 as network administrator. But in 2017, my role changed as our university first started seriously considering digitizing some of our education.
Unfortunately, we only had Adobe Connect for our online sessions, and it was limited to audio, video, and sharing screens. It lacked that collaborative element we needed and the user experience was poor. We needed videoconferencing plus collaboration: a tool that enabled discussion and had extensive integrations.
We tried using Jabber for chats, but needed a more cohesive, integrated platform. Another option we considered was Pexip, which we could access through an institute for German science organizations. When we looked more in-depth at Pexip, however, we realized we would run into similar problems because it was also limited to just videoconferencing. We needed more than that.
I attend Cisco Live every year and that’s where I first encountered Webex. Most of our existing hardware was from Cisco, and we’ve had a good experience in the past with both their products and their team. This was the first time I’d seen Webex in action, however, and saw that it was a much more powerful tool than what we were using, and it could also integrate with Moodle, our open-source learning platform. Webex opened up the possibility for our students to collaborate in online spaces. It was exactly what we were looking for.
Germany has very strict data protection laws, which not all IT solutions can accommodate. It means that rollout and deployment of a service can be very slow. When we first selected Webex in 2018, we decided to pilot it on a particular project led by scientists to ensure that Webex could work within German protocols before rolling it out to the entire university. We later realized this project wasn’t well suited to the pilot, so we pivoted to a smaller pilot group at our Institute for IT Security.
This new pilot group used the solution together with their students, creating seminars within Webex and also collaborating with researchers from the United States and France. That pilot lasted about a year, and the users were very satisfied with Webex. We were just about to propose scaling this up to the entire university—then coronavirus hit.
Scaling to Our Emergency Needs with Ease
Like so many people around the world, we were suddenly faced with the task of getting everyone up and running so they could work remotely. In our environment, we also needed to connect with and advise students. You can imagine my relief when people would ask, “Do we have a service we can use to share coursework?” and I could honestly tell them that we had just completed a pilot with the perfect tool.
People did ask why we didn’t opt for the supposedly “free” videoconferencing options out there, and I would tell them the truth: There’s no such thing as free. You always give up something—and with free cloud-based tools, that compromise is often on the security side. With Webex, we had a very good system, and we were able to use every security extension available.
We encouraged people to sign on through a link on our university web portal rather than signing up through the Webex site, because we wanted to avoid creating shadow accounts. Webex’s API allowed us to do a full-scale launch within a week under unprecedented circumstances.
In one sense, we were prepared because we had already completed the pilot, but in another sense, coronavirus arrived a minute too early. In an ideal world, I would have had more time to migrate to the Cisco Webex EMEAR data residency, but this was an emergency. No one was coming to me with their security concerns, but it was always top of mind for me.
During the first week with Webex, it seemed everyone around the world was trying video conferencing for the first time. That period required a big adjustment for everyone, but once we set up the accounts, users found it very easy to connect within the system.
From there, feedback was great. Instructors only had to invite students to their seminar space and they could collaborate there. Connecting with external users is as easy as sending an email invitation. Even with an average internet connection, users found the audio and video quality of Webex to be fantastic, whether students were connecting in the same building, across campus, or around the world.
We’re also impressed with how well it’s scaled. In a matter of six weeks, we went from testing Webex with a small group of people to using it across the university—from 100 pilot users to 2,600 and counting. We have a threshold of 6,360 users, which we calculated based on our total university population, plus an additional 20%. This allows us plenty of room to grow.
Another big advantage is how easy it is to troubleshoot for the user, because the device is never the issue. That makes it a lot easier for me to manage, too. Without Webex, I would be looking at a lot more man-hours to maintain on-prem servers, at the very least. That would mean a lot more work for my team (who has the same safety concerns as everyone else during the pandemic), a worse experience for the user, and a higher cost for the university. A cloud-based solution like Webex is much better for everyone involved.
Connected Like Never Before
Webex is often used as a professional tool, but we know it’s working well because it’s bringing our campus together educationally and socially. Students are quick to adopt and adapt, and once one student professes that Webex is a good tool, others are eager to try it.
Only one month in, we have heard from students that Webex is meeting a variety of their needs. Faced with the closure of on-campus meeting spaces, we were surprised to hear that they’re connecting via Webex teams and meetings to host parties, play cards and board games, and just talk with friends.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of that social aspect. University is more than just lectures, and as we have been reminded all too painfully, life is short. Just as it’s important to connect professionally, during stressful times we need to reach out to one another socially, too. I think it’s amazing that students have adopted Webex to talk and share information. No one has to feel isolated just because they’re learning from home.
Our academic staff are also pleased with the ability to come together in one integrated online space. They can easily create a team for the semester and invite all their students. The integration with Moodle couldn’t be simpler; within Webex an instructor can provide links to the Moodle learning files and then use Webex for discussion. Because it’s collaborative, there’s more to it than delivering a lecture via video. Students can ask questions or discuss the material in the chat room. We’ve had a lot of very positive feedback from instructors.
Our administrative staff has also come to love the flexibility that Webex offers. The university president and other key leaders have to provide information to the staff at regular meetings, which used to happen in a lecture theater. For obvious reasons, we can no longer have hundreds of people meeting in person right now, so for our two most recent meetings we hosted them with Webex.
This was the first time many of the administrative staff used the program, and some users are more familiar with this kind of tool than others. With my team providing ongoing support, however, we were able to go ahead with the meetings—and people responded really well. Everyone was impressed by the video and audio quality, and even more generally, the ability to continue on with “business as usual” during such a period of uncertainty.
We are now starting to transition out of the first phase of this pandemic, but we don’t truly know how long it will take to find a new “normal.” As we think about what that new normal will look like, we can reflect on what the pandemic has taught us about needs that perhaps always existed but previously went unaddressed.
After one of our recent remote staff meetings, my team posed a poll: Once we’re no longer in crisis mode, should meetings still be available through Webex? The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ When all is said and done, we’re grateful to have such a great tool in our toolbox, enhancing the overall educational experience on campus and off campus for students, faculty, and staff alike.