September is a special time of year. It marks the end of summer, which also means back to school and kids head back to the classroom with books and supplies in tow. This year is an exception, however: Things are vastly different, as schools enter a new era of education in a post-COVID-19 world. How the industry handles the shift in education to one that’s partially or fully digital will have a big impact on the future of the country and the world.
If done poorly, the educational divide that already exists between higher-income families and lower- income ones could widen greatly. However, this problem can be solved through digital technology, such as collaboration tools, because Cisco’s Webex—for one well-known system—enables students and teachers to collaborate. But there’s more to education than meetings.
The pandemic forced schools to scramble and find remote learning solutions
At the start of the pandemic, schools moved exclusively to distance learning, scrambling to set students up on Google Classroom, Blackboard, Schoology, Moodle and other learning management systems (LMS). Many school districts quickly realized they were ill-equipped to support large masses of remote students with existing tools and technologies—or rather, the lack thereof.
LMS are effective in delivering lessons and checking students in. Yet, they have limitations when it comes to supporting hybrid learning, which is the preferred model for most schools at the moment. In addition to LMS, teachers use various other apps and resources for completing assignments online. The lack of integration between these different tools requires students to keep track of numerous logins, links and documents. It’s an annoyance for both students and teachers, who need a more cohesive approach to hybrid learning.
Hybrid learning blends physical and virtual learning
In a hybrid learning environment, students attend school some days and learn remotely other days. Students who cannot physically be present in the classroom can also join a live lesson from home via synchronous video. This option allows students who have been exposed to COVID-19 or have health problems to feel like they are part of the in-person learning experience.
Howe Public Schools Use Webex To Create Virtual Classrooms
That’s exactly what Howe Public Schools, a small rural school district in southeast Oklahoma, is doing. The district has adopted a hybrid learning model and equipped its schools with Cisco Webex to help students continue learning seamlessly. Schools utilize existing equipment such as interactive whiteboards and cameras together with Webex to create a classroom-like environment for students, whether they’re at home or in the school building.
Howe Public Schools teachers carry out lessons, share screens, take snapshots of conversations and conduct breakout sessions for more personalized learning. Teachers can chat with students individually or allow small groups of students to chat and collaborate on projects. Most importantly, students who want to join a live lesson from home can participate in the conversation and access all the material in one place.
Webex integrates with Schoology and other LMS
Cisco Webex integrates with LMS, so teachers and students don’t have to use multiple apps. This integration makes the teaching process seamless and can deliver high quality education to remote students. Teachers can schedule virtual classes over Webex within their LMS of choice and students can fully access content in the LMS. Cisco recently launched a Webex integration with Schoology, a leading LMS for grades K through 12. One feature that teachers have asked for is the ability to pre-record a lesson and have the link available to students before they come to class. Different students learn at a different pace, so schools should be mindful when choosing technology that isn’t a one-size-fits-all.
Every student should be included in the hybrid learning environment, despite their abilities or challenges. At Howe Public Schools, teachers rely on Webex Assistant for audio highlights of conversations to help hearing impaired students understand what they’re teaching. The feature displays closed captions during a meeting and allows participants to adjust the font size based on their needs. Webex is part of individual plans for students with other disabilities as well. For example, speech pathologists use Webex Meetings to conduct remote therapy sessions.
Lance Ford, Cisco’s education advocate for Howe Public Schools, believes technology is shaping the future of education. He sees more opportunities in the future to provide students with additional services that wouldn’t otherwise be available with in-person-only learning. Similar to Webex Assistant, there could be a feature that allows students to select closed captions in their native language while a teacher delivers a lesson in English.
As more schools transition to hybrid classrooms, it’s important to keep it simple for students and teachers. Schools cannot control what students do outside of the physical classroom, but they can control the quality of the hybrid learning experience by investing in technology that can scale and adapt to change.
The integration of Cisco Webex with LMS is an excellent example of how the technology vendors need to step up and make their tools not just available to educational institutions but ensure they are being used to their fullest potential.
Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.