Youngstown State University Confronts Distance and Hybrid Learning with Cisco Webex


I used to think of higher education as stuffy and out of touch with reality. Before I began to work in a university environment, I never associated universities with technology and practical approaches to the modern world. I was wrong.

I’ve since witnessed how institutes of higher learning have embraced cutting-edge IT. Forward-thinking academic administrators use technology to put students first, accelerate learning, prepare tomorrow's leaders, and overcome a wide range of challenges.

Inspired by a Visionary Leader

I first joined Youngstown State University (YSU) as a consultant. I was coming off a 26-year stint at Mercy Health, one of the country's top nonprofit healthcare systems. I'd spent the last 15 years as a corporate IT executive and was asked to move to Cincinnati to eventually replace Mercy's retiring CIO. However, I wanted to stay in Youngstown for several reasons, one of which was that I was drawn to the technology landscape. 

I never pictured myself taking a permanent position at YSU, but I was swayed by the vision of YSU President Jim Tressel. He has an entrepreneurial mindset and is very respected here in Ohio for his business acumen and philanthropy (and his place in the College Football Hall of Fame for a 25-year coaching career doesn’t hurt). When he took the reins at YSU in 2014, he energized the university's executive team with his hands-on approach. His leadership inspired me, so I accepted his offer to become our interim CIO in 2016 and was promoted to Associate VP and full-time CIO a year later.

A leader with a forward-thinking approach and vision can inspire an organization to make changes that were previously unthinkable.

YSU operates a 13,000-student campus, and we run the school like a small company. President Tressel might call my cell on a Saturday afternoon because he's had a great idea pop into his head. Our provost may want to discuss an IT issue on a Thursday night, and I'll gladly take his call. We're very informal that way: Our leaders talk to one another and exchange ideas on the spur of the moment. Sometimes, those moments are when the best plans become reality.

But for any plan to be effective, I had to solidify our IT strategy.

Shifting Our Focus to Standardization and Governance

When I took over as CIO, our IT infrastructure and collaborative tools were patched together with solutions from different vendors. My predecessor was an old school IT guy—tactical but not strategic. Rather than establishing a big-picture vision, he focused on staying within budget and keeping the lights on. Instead of providing IT leadership to the colleges, he gave them the freedom to do their own thing and simply offered support. We had stretched our IT resources to their limits, and I had to remedy the situation.

My mindset was the complete opposite of his. Coming from a large health system with 35,000 users across nine markets, I learned the value of strategy and standardization. So, I spent my first three years as YSU's CIO standardizing our application portfolio, our hardware, and our infrastructure refresh—everything from desktops to print stations and VoIP telephony. I took everything we had and consolidated our technology framework around two vendors: Microsoft and Cisco. 

By creating IT strategy and standardization, you can consolidate your technology framework and maximize resources.

As part of this turnaround, my staff and I also turned our focus from maintenance to governance. In the past, YSU's IT staff was 99% tactical and 1% strategic. I worked with our teams to change those ratios. Our engineers and network architects are planners, and are now 80% strategic and 20% tactical. Meanwhile, our technicians are doers, and 80% of their role is focused on tactical work.

A Gift That Changed Everything

In 2017, YSU received a $1.1 million donation from Dr. Chandler Kohli, a prominent local neurosurgeon and the former chair of our Board of Trustees. He'd made a similar donation to NEOMED (Northeast Ohio Medical University) to finance the purchase of Mediasite, a tool that records and archives lectures. The idea was that having 24-hour access to lessons would help prevent students from dropping out because they missed a class. 

Dr. Kolhi wanted to gift the same technology to YSU, but it only fit the needs of a small number of our students. Instead, President Tressel and I pitched him the idea of classrooms without walls. All educators know that learning extends beyond the classroom, and at YSU, we knew that it wouldn’t be long before traditional education moved away from being a solely in-person experience. 

Instead of being physically present, we wanted students to be able to attend a lecture from their dorm room if they're not feeling well. Rather than driving an hour or two to campus, we wanted rural students to be able to participate from home. We wanted to give students the ability to collaborate with their peers and instructors in real time, not just a way to broadcast and archive lectures. But to make this work, we needed an interactive solution. 

The Classrooms and Conference Rooms of Tomorrow

We established a permanent endowment with Dr. Kohli's donation and also equipped 13 classrooms with collaborative tools to serve all three colleges on the YSU campus. It was a pilot project and a learning initiative at the same time. 

We had discussions with Dr. Lance Ford from Cisco about the power of Webex. We then engaged both Dave Jessup of Logicalis, Dirk Holsopple of Cisco, and two of our own,  Corey Pedaline (Engineer) and Jeff Wormley, who served as our internal project manager and was also instrumental with his vast AV engineering knowledge. Everyone brought a unique outlook to the table. 

Cisco offered a global perspective; Lance is a powerhouse and a Cisco Webex evangelist who showed us how other universities like Rutgers and Case Western Reserve used the platform to promote distance learning. Logicalis and Cisco came to the project with strong technology design expertise. Our internal team helped customize Cisco and Logicalis' solutions to meet the specific needs of our student population. It was an equal partnership and a collaborative effort from day one. 

Our 13 classrooms of the future all share the same design. We installed a camera bar and three 65-inch monitors (coding developed by the afformentioned Jeff Wormley) in portrait mode in the front of each room to act as a video wall that displays content. Next to that is a monitor in landscape mode that shows all the students attending remotely. In this way, the instructor and those students who are physically present can see and interact with remote learners. We also have a conference monitoring camera at the back of the room and ceiling-based microphones to give students attending online the same point of view as those present in the lecture hall. 

We also embraced Webex for its messaging and meeting capabilities and built 10 conference rooms, also known as business spaces, for our internal use. These spaces tend to have dual 65-inch screens for content and participants, along with a single camera bar at the front of the room and an array of ceiling mics tailored to the size of each space. 

Our Investment Prepared Us for the Global Pandemic

This all happened back in 2017, and our investment set us up to pivot online learning when the global pandemic transformed learning spaces in March 2020. Prior to that point, 90% of our learning happened in person, and only 10% of students were online. Fortunately, our lockdown order came while we were on spring break. We were supposed to resume classes on March 13th but President Tressel extended the break to the 23rd, which gave us 10 days to pivot all our courses to distance learning. 

There was no way to schedule all our normal lectures in the 13 classrooms that were equipped with Webex. Even if we booked the rooms around the clock, we couldn't accommodate the thousands of hours of instruction delivered in our 400 classrooms and lecture halls. But there was another silver lining to our earlier Webex adoption: in addition to a campus-wide license for Microsoft Teams, we also had a campus-wide license for Cisco Webex. 

Given the urgency of the situation, we let our instructors choose the remote learning platform best suited to their activity instead of imposing a solution from the top down. For example, our music faculty initially chose Zoom because it had a high-fidelity music mode that disables echo cancellation, eliminates compression, and enhances audio codec quality. We signed a one-year deal with Zoom when Webex lacked this functionality, but now that Cisco added this feature, our music school will be switching over to Webex when that agreement expires. 

Shaping the Future of Instructional Delivery

Many people have become familiar with Cisco Webex over the course of 2020, but the platform has effectively changed the future of instructional delivery at YSU. Our Cisco Webex Room Kit Pros provide an immersive experience that allows remote learners to interact with their onsite peers through Cisco Webex. We also use Cisco Webex Education Connector for Learning Management Systems to schedule classes and office hours, share files, record lectures and classroom sessions, and collect and view attendance data and other useful analytics. 

We’ve adapted to meet the needs of our current students while eyeing the impacts of our shifting student demographic. Most of our learners come from the immediate vicinity, with three counties supplying 80% of our student population. However, the number of high school graduates is declining locally, and we have to look further afield to attract new candidates. 

Distance learning is a stopgap measure right now, but eventually all educational activities will be offered online.

With Cisco Webex, we can give students in rural areas the opportunity to take remote classes part or most of the time. Instead of spending an hour or more driving into Youngstown every day, they can come in once a week for in-person activities, such as study groups, labs, and one-on-one meetings with their professors. Distance learning is a stopgap measure right now, but a small group of teachers had begun to champion Cisco Webex before the pandemic, and we'd like to increase their numbers over time.

The Gift of Choice

President Tressel's vision and Dr. Kohli's generous gift gave YSU a head start in distance learning. Our technology investment allowed us to serve our students and staff during the pandemic and has laid the groundwork for the university's future. We didn't plan it this way, but the pandemic forced us to expand our use of remote learning and collaborative tools. 

Our experience with Cisco Webex has been an incredible journey. It not only prepared us to weather this crisis, but it is also the cornerstone of our strategy to innovate and attract new students from across the state. Right now, our students have to learn from home, but when the world goes back to normal, they'll be able to choose between onsite, online, and hybrid learning.