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Creating higher education that’s flexible, secure and inclusive

Creating higher education that’s flexible, secure and inclusive

Beyond the pandemic, universities seek a perfect blend of in-class and virtual learning

By Salman Abdulghani Faqeeh, Managing Director, Cisco Saudi Arabia

Sudden change is never easy. So, it’s no secret that the abrupt shift to distance learning last year caused a number of challenges and upheavals for educators, students and parents alike. 

At the same time, important lessons were learned: creative thinking prevailed in all kinds of educational areas, and some strong advantages to remote learning emerged — when done right and with great technology. 

As we move toward the “next” normal, with more students returning to classrooms and university campuses, it will be important to blend the best of all worlds — virtual, on-campus, and in-class — in more creative and innovative ways. 

I believe that this hybrid learning model is the way of the future. And it presents opportunities to redress educational imbalances and shortcomings rooted in centuries-old practices. This will demand imaginative new approaches to learning that better prepare students of all backgrounds and learning styles for a fast-changing world. And it will need next-level technology — especially collaboration solutions that build in flexibility, inclusivity, and security. 

At the university level, students were moving towards a hybrid model even before the pandemic. As with office workers, many expect more choice in what they learn and how they do it. Some will want to be on campus full time; others will prefer to combine the learning experience with work, internships, or travel. At the same time, students will seek the right balance between alone, focus time, group work, or one-on-one interactions with other students and teachers. All of this builds the case for connected classrooms, which provide equal access and immersion from wherever the educator and student by may.

For a generation of digital natives, virtual collaboration technology and learning come naturally. Many are visual or kinesthetic/tactile learners, so the drone of an auditory-only lecture may not work for them. The best collaboration platforms, however, will accommodate all styles of learning, and integrate next generation videoconferencing and digital whiteboarding to drive participation.

At Cisco, we are seeing this yearning for new educational models in a program called Future Voices. It’s a platform on which educators and students can express their ideas about reimagining education — and innovative technology is a key topic of conversation. 

Collaboration technology, for the challenges of the pandemic and beyond 

That’s why I’m excited about the latest innovations in Cisco Webex. This cloud-first tool proved indispensable during the pandemic, as so many schools around the world made the abrupt transition to remote learning. Webex offers superior threat defense and security to protect against the kinds of online intrusions that upended too many lessons held on less-secure platforms. And with everything from visual smartboards and breakout rooms to instant messaging and AI-powered meeting transcriptions, it allowed schools to maintain high levels of continuity during a trying time. 

Across the Kingdom, educational institutions were quick to understand how crucial collaboration technology such as Webex would be, both in ensuring continuity and futureproofing access to quality education from anywhere. King Saudi University used Webex to enable online collaboration between lecturers and students for master thesis discussions, host private discussions and record meetings for convenient playback. 

Equally, Umm Al-Qura University deployed Webex for Education, enabling distance learning for over 100,000 participants across its 36 colleges. This provided an uninterrupted experience for educators and students alike. Our collaboration solution helped students conduct and discuss their graduate research projects via HD video, audio and screensharing. It also helped the university to create virtual Quran recitation sessions and enable learning and development opportunities with counsellors. With Webex Events, Umm Al-Qura University even hosted major events virtually – including the Annual Contest for Memorization of the Holy Quran and a Crisis Management Forum with high-level industry experts. 

For these institutions and more, collaboration technology proved to be a critical component in ensuring continuity, but it also provided a glimpse into the way forward. Now, universities and schools are looking towards models which blend the best of virtual and in-person interactions.

Supporting an inclusive future for universities 

Such hybrid strategies will only be enhanced by the latest innovations in Webex. The future of education will be all about flexibility, choice, and safety. And Webex is the most secure and flexible platform, with the goal of making the digital experience 10 times better than in-person – so, no remote student or worker ever feels like a second-class citizen.

To accomplish this, Cisco has added features like AI-powered transcription and real-time translation. Now, collaboration can transcend not just geographic but even language barriers. Webex also connects with other apps and service, like Facebook’s Workplace, and it integrates instant messaging, phone, and other modes of communication into one platform – combined with smartboards and other features, that enable all kinds of learning. 

The campus experience will remain an important growth experience for many students, but I look forward to a future in which students from all economic backgrounds, cultures, and regions can learn from one another and gain new educational opportunities; students can check in remotely to lectures when the need arises; and they can tailor their education to better fit their own learning styles and life situations. 

Above all, they must be able to do all of this while knowing that they are protected from cyberthreats and their vital assets are kept secure. At the university level, many institutions conduct important research, so a robust security fabric is paramount. But no matter what needs to be protected, Webex builds in encryption and high security at every level of design, coding, and usage. 

More than ever, the world needs educated, creative thinkers. But for far too long, millions of people have been locked out of the opportunities afforded by higher education. By opening doors to more students, we will tap new sources of talent and perspective, if not outright genius. 

I believe that hybrid learning models will better enable schools to develop young minds that are ready to tackle our biggest challenges. And great technology will support them every step of the way. 

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