Stony Brook School, a private Christian boarding and day school in Stony Brook, New York, was established in 1922, but their communications and collaboration challenges are as current as it gets. Like the rest of the world, 2020 saw Stony Brook’s students and faculty plunged into a morass of digital communications that seemed to isolate as much as it connected them.
In addition to the college preparatory curriculum for middle and high schoolers offered at the brick-and-mortar school, Stony Brook offers an online distance learning arm called Gravitas. Gravitas offers online options that serve a significant international population, with students in 16 countries taking regular, honors, and AP courses.
Stony Brook has a long history of dealing with communications challenges across many different types of students: day school students and on-campus residents; high school seniors and much younger seventh graders; local residents, and far-flung international students. This presents a variety of communication challenges, but because of long-entrenched routines and processes and tight purse strings, there was not yet a strong case to implement a broad, feature-rich communications platform like Webex.
Disconnected, feature-limited tools didn’t help the matter. The longtime local phone provider was unreliable, with intermittent outages and numerous phone calls dropping, and there was very little recourse when problems did arise; it was essentially a black box, with nothing to do but submit a support case and wait. This made even basic phone communication an ongoing challenge.
Gravitas, the online program, had established a small foothold for digital collaboration tools, but with COVID, they need to expand those collaboration tools to the rest of the school. Initially, the school coasted on free offerings from Zoom, but limitations on the free tier as well as security concerns led to a discussion about different options. While Zoom offered a strong base set of features to meet video conferencing needs, it didn’t offer a cohesive answer to the challenges of other functions like calendaring and messaging, which meant lots of context switching and joining the wrong rooms.
While Stony Brook’s journey with Webex started with Webex Calling, it was only the first of many solutions that would be adopted to improve communications and processes. The list of ways Webex is helping Stony Brook modernize their environment includes:
…and counting. In addition to these, more solutions are being evaluated all the time. Devin De Frisco, Director of Technology (and an alum) of Stony Brook School, checks for new opportunities regularly: “Maybe once every month, or so I go through the entirety of the App Hub and just go shopping to see if there’s anything new or interesting that I can add in.”
One such addition is a simple utility called Power Pack, currently saving De Frisco hours of time by automating previously manual bulk tasks. “The Power Pack is particularly useful. We have a conversation space that’s called ‘Res Life at the Brook’, and we have to have every student in there. That was originally very manual — me just putting one name in at a time,” De Frisco said. “I went from that taking hours to just having a CSV that I upload and instantly they’re all there.”
The Webex suite already provides the most important building blocks for online learning, like video calling and real-time messaging as well as integrations to adjacent tools. The integration with Canvas provides the education management framework on top, creating a fully integrated system that makes classes in the Gravitas program easy for teachers to manage and students to attend.
Today, Gravitas hosts about 70 students worldwide and conducts the entire program using Webex, seamlessly integrated with the education system already in use.
“Gravitas was still in its infancy, but it was exclusively through Zoom and it was the old way of having to make meeting links… It was archaic. We had kids joining the wrong rooms. They were in their class and to them, it doesn’t look any different — it’s the same Zoom window,” said De Frisco. “But when you’re using the Webex Canvas Connector, you’re selecting the class that you’re in and you just hit ‘Join’ from your schedule in the calendar. It’s so much easier for everyone.”
Students are empowered to leverage the platform to enhance their own education. Independent of classroom requirements, many students use Webex spaces to organize their own discussions or group projects. Text-based discussions are also more engaging because they are no longer constrained to Google Groups’ forum-based messaging format, but can take place in a much more real-time fashion right in the Webex app.
Webex’s powerful core capabilities combined with the integration of a purpose-built education system helped build an online learning program that is highly interactive and easy to use and support, enjoyable enough that many students choose to use it to socialize.
The many integrations Stony Brook School uses to foster an active, modernized learning environment continue to create impacts large and small.
The Webex platform’s App Hub offers many opportunities to help create a better, safer, and more accessible community at the Stony Brook School, and De Frisco is always on the lookout for more. “Right now, I’m looking at Sphere Shield [security and compliance controls for collaboration tools], because that looks like it’s got some really awesome functionality for making it a safer space for the students… I’m always looking for more opportunities to problem solve or improve the faculty and student experience.” On Webex’s App Hub, Stony Brook School and other educational institutions can count on finding new apps and integrations to tackle an ever-changing environment.