Webex Gave Us a Lifeline for Teaching in a World of Change
For good or for ill, children can adjust to almost anything. Their sense of norms are flexible, so they often tend to accept new parameters that frustrate older minds. In the spring of 2020, children around the world began the ultimate test in adaptation. Could they continue their education as the world grappled with a global pandemic?
When Serbian schools closed earlier this year, some of our kids did more than adapt. Many of them thrived in the changing climate. They did so not by chance, but because of the support and innovative thinking of the adults around them.
The Answer They Didn’t Know They Needed
Founded in 1992, Algotech specializes in integrated communication systems. We operate throughout Serbia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over the years, we have become one of our region's largest integrators. We have partnerships with several worldwide technology companies and are proud to use our connections to help local organizations achieve success.
I will be the first one to tell you that I am a technology evangelist. I work to acquire new technologies that can enhance our customer portfolio. That involves a keen understanding of our customer needs and how emerging technology could influence future conditions.
When Serbia went into a nationwide lockdown on March 16th, 2020, I immediately thought about the impact on education. The schools were all forced to shut their doors as part of the effort to restrict the spread of the coronavirus. My son attends with more than 1,000 other kids, and I knew they wouldn’t have an education plan for the foreseeable future.
I immediately went to the school's principal to offer my skills as a tech consultant. Everything happened so quickly that there was no formalized education plan, and we didn’t know if the Serbian government would provide any help. In my mind, it made sense that a virtual solution could be the way forward.
With a virtual solution, educators and students could continue teaching and learning safely. I knew the technology had to be reliable and easy to understand, and I offered to provide unlimited tech support to get things running. The principal looked at me as if I was an angel, coming down from the sky with the answer they needed in .
The principal agreed to give it a shot, and I began introducing Cisco Webex to the staff. We started with just a handful of teachers but, as with many good ideas, people heard about it quickly. Within a week, we began to hear from more teachers who were looking for ways to connect with their pupils.
The Benefits of Webex Meetings
During the first few weeks of the pandemic, businesses and organizations found virtual solutions that worked for their needs. But educating young children came with challenges unlike those of a corporation, and not every solution is made to cater to those challenges.
had many features that made it an easy sell for educators. Perhaps most importantly, Webex Meetings has an intuitive interface. It is designed for maximum simplicity, which makes it easy to learn and it doesn't take a lot of effort to manage. That is incredibly important when you are already trying to manage a classroom full of children. A teacher needs to focus on guiding young minds, not figuring out how to run complicated equipment or applications.
Parents have a similar challenge as teachers when it comes to wrangling children into seats for online learning, in addition to whatever career-related issues arise when working from home themselves. Webex Meetings was perfect for our situation because class meetings are shared through a single link that is always the same. We all love the simplicity of having one link per class that never changes, and that we can find easily.
Several governments, including that of Serbia, eventually stepped in and attempted to continue educating children using nationally televised instructional broadcasts. It looked great from their end, but those of us on the other side noticed mixed results. The quality of instruction was fine, but it’s hard to keep kids in front of the television for instruction if there’s no interaction.
Webex Meetings is incredibly interactive. Teachers could structure class time in various ways, be it multiple conferences or breakout rooms for the kids to interact with teachers one on one. There are also features that provided teachers with various methods of receiving feedback.
Despite all of these features, one of the best things about Webex Meetings was that the interface practically disappeared during use. Once everyone got used to it, students and teachers interacted very similarly to how they did at school. Even at home, many of the children began to feel somewhat normal while the online class lasted.
Once we got started, the word got out, and more teachers began to use the technology. The system was a reliable touchpoint at a time of great uncertainty.
Flexibility for a Modern Learning Experience
Elementary schools have operated in more or less the same way for a long time, but the pandemic interruption provided opportunities to try new teaching methods.
Many teachers continued teaching lessons as if nothing changed. They logged into the class every weekday morning at around 9 a.m. and provided instruction to pupils until early afternoon. Other teachers chose to provide two separate lessons per day with homework and reading assignments in between. Some teachers even gave lessons outside traditional school hours, including weekends.
Webex Meetings allowed each professional the flexibility to provide instruction as they saw fit, based on their needs and those of their students. This was new for all of us, and with Webex Meetings, we had the flexibility to experiment to find the best possible methods. The interactive features within the application also gave teachers flexibility around sharing certain types of material, such as presentations and files, as well as administering tests.
Flexibility came in particularly handy because we were dealing with a lot of different devices. As most modern technology professionals know, the age of desktop computer domination is over. More than 67% of our schoolkids accessed the Webex platform using mobile devices. Another 30% used either laptops or desktops, and a very small number used tablets. Every single feature had to be equally useful for students using a wide variety of tools. Webex Meetings was powerful because it could be used on any device with ease.
There are two objective measures of how new technology helps clients realize success. The first measure is tech support. During the 100 days of our Webex use, there were only 5–10 instances of requests for tech support. I know that technology works when people use it without problems.
The second measure of success is adoption rates. As I said, we initially started with a small room of five eager teachers. By the end of the 100 days of virtual learning, we had a nearly 100% adoption rate for grades 1–5. Our foreign language instructors also used it actively for grades 5–8. In total, we provided more than 1,500 lessons during 1.2 million minutes of Webex Meetings participation time.
Comparisons and Future Considerations
About halfway through our process, the school board discovered that the government provided MS Teams accounts to every single teacher and student in the country. This was a decision made shortly after the state of emergency declaration. However, Teams was not widely adopted, and none of the staff at Veljko Dugošević Elementary School even realized it was an option.
For these educators, experiencing a walkthrough of the Webex Meetings platform was the key to help them visualize the potential solution. They saw that it wasn't complicated and provided them with the tools for interactivity. That combination made the onboarding process incredibly easy.
The experience is best summed up by one our teachers, Ana Milosavljević: "At the beginning of the Pandemic, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to switch from regular to online classes, which we had never practiced until that moment. Thanks to the simplicity and flexibility of Webex platform, in a record time we were able to introduce Webex to all the children and seamlessly organize online lectures, which made teachers' job much easier."
Perhaps the best way to know how we impacted the education of our youth is by comparing our experience to others. Our solution didn’t just help our school; a conversation between two teachers led to a small rural school adopting Webex Meetings as well. They had never considered something like this, and they were similarly very satisfied with the platform. Meanwhile, another school in our area had zero interaction between teachers and pupils during the entire 100-day lockdown period, the idea of which is unacceptable to me. Even after the lockdown ended, I haven’t heard of any other stories about a better solution.
Our students returned to the classroom this fall, but many of our stakeholders wanted to continue using Webex. The parents love the platform for its simplicity and accessibility. In my ongoing discussions with the staff, they loved the idea of using Webex Meetings for "Working Saturdays," days that our students sometimes attend school, but Webex would allow them to attend from home. Whatever happens in the future, educators and administrators feel much better knowing they have a working plan should another state of emergency occur.
We were able to provide a fantastic opportunity for students and teachers during an unprecedented time. We all live with the knowledge that conditions can change quickly, and that we could be forced back into our homes again with very short notice. For at least one school in Serbia, we also know that Webex provides a lifeline to continue educating—no matter what happens.