Today’s Online Classes Are Setting the Stage for Tomorrow’s Hybrid Learning Environment


The global pandemic forced schools around the world to rethink their operations. Educational institutions that had already embarked on their digital transformations had to accelerate their plans and make contingencies to get more people working and learning remotely. While online classes have been the norm for some time at many schools, remote learning is challenging for medical schools because much of the education we provide requires hands-on training in a lab situation.

Karaganda Medical University is the second-largest medical university in Kazakhstan. Our school was established in 1950 and celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2020. It is home to 8,000 students and 2,000 teachers and support staff. Our mission is social advancement and improvement of the health and quality of life of the population of Kazakhstan by achieving excellence in science, education, and medical practice.

We were the first university in the country to receive ISO 9001 certification. Our facilities include our Center for Simulation and Educational Technologies, Research Center and Shared Use Laboratory, Sanitary Research and Hygienic Laboratory, six hostels, 57 clinical bases, 476 professional practice bases, and our campus medical and dental clinics.

Accelerating Our Digital Transformation

As Karaganda Medical University's Vice-Rector of Strategic Development and Science, I am responsible for our research and international collaboration initiatives, strategic goals, and digital transformation. I seek opportunities to build our international reputation and improve the way our students learn. I am also in charge of our overall digital strategy, including how we use digital platforms as administrative and educational tools.

When the global pandemic forced everyone home, we had to speed up our digital transformation and adapt our workflows to remote work. It forced us to reconsider everything we knew about operating a medical school and teaching the doctors and healthcare professionals of tomorrow. We had to halt our hands-on instruction, including labs, clinical internships, and medical residencies. These restrictions mainly affected our fifth- and sixth-year students. However, first- to fourth-year students take classes in medical theory and the humanities, and we were able to move their academic activities online. 

Partnering with XNET to Explore Our Options

At the time, our students' only exposure to remote learning tools had been taking exams online instead of having to show up for in-class testing. Our teachers didn't know how to prepare lectures for online learners, either. Relying on staff and students to adapt was the only way to stay safe and continue learning during the lockdown. However, while our faculty and administrators understand medicine and healthcare, we aren't IT experts. We needed to partner with a company that would steer us in the right direction, and so we turned to XNET.

Your team can’t be experts in everything. Where there are gaps in your IT knowledge, find the right partner to lend a hand.

Karaganda Medical University has worked with XNET for more than a decade. Our partnership even predates my arrival here. Over the years, XNET has consistently counseled us on our IT needs and delivered the right solutions. XNET is an extension of our internal technology team and has helped define our IT strategy. Their team comes to me and says, "We have this solution, and it's better than what you're using now. It will help you be more effective and will establish you as the leading university using this technology." I implicitly trust XNET and knew they would help us find the best solution for our students, teachers, and administrative staff.

Choosing Webex Meetings Over the Competition

With help from the IT experts at XNET, we looked at the leading remote collaboration platforms. We started with Zoom because other universities and various organizations in Kazakhstan were using it. There were two issues with the platform. The free version of Zoom limited group meetings to 40 minutes and the only way to get unrestricted access was by signing a one-year or longer contract.

Next, we looked at Microsoft Teams, but the interface wasn’t appealing. Finally, we tried Webex Meetings, and everything fell into place because it offers three different types of conferences that correspond to our present and future needs. 

At its core, Meetings is the perfect tool for our administrative staff. They can meet one-on-one or in groups of up to 1,000 people, share documents and screens, and even collaborate using virtual whiteboards. Meetings also offers purpose-built add-ons for online education and training. Our instructors can divide students into breakout rooms for group discussions and other activities. They can also create tests that students can take during live online learning sessions and even score and grade them while an online class is in progress. Again, these Meetings sessions have an upper limit of 1,000 participants, which is more than enough for even our most-attended classes.

Finally, Webex Events offers event features that raise the number of participants to 3,000 and will eventually allow us to hold virtual academic conferences for the Kazakhstani and international medical communities long after the pandemic is over. I’m very excited about the positive impact such events can have on our national and global reputation. 

Moving Our Classes Online Overnight

The pandemic forced us to act quickly. When we decided to switch to online learning, we told our teachers they'd be starting the next day. It was a shock to instructors, but they quickly adjusted to the new reality. Once the shock wore off, they found clever ways of adapting their course material for online classes and challenging students in a remote learning environment.

XNET helped us make the transition to remote classes. They provided 24/7 support and helped us train our academic staff. Some of the older teachers were hesitant about the transition to online learning and required a bit more hand-holding to get them comfortable with the platform, but our younger instructors and students adapted in no time because they're digital natives. Meetings was just another app to learn, and online classes represented another onscreen activity alongside streaming, gaming, and social networking. 

Preparing a Hybrid Learning Environment for the Future

Although students have taken to remote learning, some prefer in-person instruction for most of their classes, especially for hands-on training like labs. However, they would rather take general courses like history, language, and biology online. For these reasons, we are looking to continue offering live online classes after the pandemic ends and to augment them with pre-recorded classes, like the ones on Coursera, that our students can take any time during the year.

We are also trying out Webex Desk Pro desktop collaboration displays. These interactive displays enable our teachers to record lectures and other learning material for future use. Our instructors can write or draw on Webex Desk Pro screens as if they were using a traditional chalkboard. These tools will allow us to provide a hybrid model of learning that can adapt to different learning styles and students needs. 

A hybrid learning model can help schools adapt to various learning styles and student needs.

Meetings offers cutting-edge interactivity today, but I hope it will evolve to incorporate features like virtual and augmented reality to simulate activities like labs. Technology moves so quickly that I can only imagine the remote learning tools we'll be using in five or ten years.

The global pandemic forced Karaganda Medical University and learning institutions around the world to accelerate our digital transformations. Today's emergency tools, like Meetings, are paving the way for tomorrow's learning solutions and the education paths we can offer to Kazakhstan’s future doctors. Thanks to our partnership with Cisco and XNET, we are exploring new ways to use technology to deliver outstanding in-person and remote learning opportunities to our students.