Students learn in person and virtually during a hybrid course at UW-Whitewater (Photo Credit: UW-Whitewater/Craig Schreiner).
When it comes to hybrid learning, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater isn’t interested in a one-size-fits-all model.
Instead, they’ve thoughtfully blended a variety of in-person and virtual options to meet each student’s unique needs.
“At the heart, our mission is to provide an inclusive educational community. We’re here to serve students from diverse backgrounds, experiences, identities, and abilities,” said Kirsten Mortimer, the university’s technology adoption coordinator.
UW-Whitewater welcomes about 11,500 graduate and undergraduate students each year, many of whom are first-generation college students, international students, veterans, active service members, or students who qualify for disability services. They also welcome returning and nontraditional students, who often balance coursework with full-time jobs.
How does a university with such a diverse student body make sure everyone’s needs are met?
For UW-Whitewater, flexibility enabled by Webex collaboration technology has been critical.
Before we dive into how UW-Whitewater leverages technology to build an inclusive education community, let’s take a moment to define what we mean by inclusive education in this context.
Inclusivity in education is an important, multifaceted topic.
At UW-Whitewater, they sum it up like this in their diversity statement:
“People from every identity, culture, background, experience, status, ability and opinion have an equal opportunity to pursue their highest goals and contribute to the fabric of our institution.”
Practically, this means that UW-Whitewater seeks to embrace a universal design approach for all their curriculum, aiming to offer “courses designed for maximum success for the broadest range of students.” They also endeavor to apply this principle of universal design to the university’s co-curricular activities, facilities, and technology. (See UW-Whitewater’s Inclusive Excellence Guidelines to learn more.)
In everything they do, UW-Whitewater works to foster a community of inclusion throughout the university: “UW-Whitewater intentionally creates and maintains a relational climate where faculty, staff, and students feel they are part of an inclusive community.”
Collaboration technology has proved a powerful partner in UW-Whitewater’s efforts to create a flexible, inclusive education environment where a diverse array of students can build community and learn in a way that works for them.
From high-quality video conferencing software for virtual classes to accessibility features like Webex Assistant, UW-Whitewater leverages a broad set of Webex capabilities to ensure all students have an excellent learning experience. When the global pandemic hit, the university doubled down on its use of Webex technology and also deployed Webex devices to create 31 more video-enabled classrooms for hybrid learning, bringing their total video-enabled classrooms and conference rooms to more than 60 across campus.
As their use of video conferencing increased during the pandemic, the university discovered new ways to offer students even more flexibility via Webex—both during and after the pandemic. UW-Whitewater has embraced a few principles in their approach to technology to help them succeed:
Offer tailored solutions that transcend barriers. To serve a wide variety of learning styles and student needs, the university offers asynchronous programs, hybrid classes, and in-person learning experiences, augmented by technology.
If someone works full-time and needs to learn asynchronously, they can do so through UW-Whitewater’s fully online courses. If someone wants to primarily learn in-person, but catch office hours or tutoring sessions virtually, they can do that, too.
Precedent is not king. For any given course, meeting, or activity, UW-Whitewater doesn’t default to in-person or virtual just because that’s the way they’ve always done it. For example, to offer maximum flexibility and accessibility during their first-year orientation program, UW-Whitewater chose to hold some sessions virtually via Webex and other sessions on campus.
“[The organizers] really looked at the objectives of each session to determine the best format,” Mortimer said.
Take feedback to heart. UW-Whitewater has various formal and informal channels for students to share thoughts and concerns. And when students provide feedback, the university listens and acts on it when appropriate. “We really worked hard to employ solutions or change the way we were doing things to be responsive to the needs of students,” Mortimer said.
Pick the right solution and stick to it. The university doesn’t make students waste time switching collaboration platforms from class to class, and semester to semester. Mortimer emphasized the value of choosing one high-quality solution and sticking with it. For UW-Whitewater, that solution was Webex.
“One of the really important pieces of providing technology for the university has been to have a scalable, modern solution for virtual communication and collaboration in place for years,” Mortimer said. “Having that available and ready to go allowed our community to hit the ground running when faced with the shift to remote teaching and learning.”
Let’s dive deeper into some examples of how UW-Whitewater lives these principles out.
Full-time jobs. Long commutes. Getting used to life in a new country. These are all challenges facing many UW-Whitewater students—challenges that at another university might be insurmountable barriers or at least major hindrances to a robust, fulfilling learning experience.
But not at UW-Whitewater.
Students who work full time can take advantage of the university’s asynchronous programs. For example, their fully online courses, including bachelor’s, master’s, and certificate programs, are completely asynchronous, letting students learn where and when they want.
“We are offering these programs for working professionals with busy lives, providing the ability to engage with the subject matter in a very meaningful way, but at a time that is convenient for you,” Mortimer said.
“We’ve found that flexibility—maybe asynchronous or at least having those synchronous class sessions available through Webex—has made it possible for someone to work and then still get to class. It’s opening up a lot of possibilities.”
They’ve also found asynchronous and virtual learning via Webex valuable for first-generation college students, many of whom are commuters.
In addition to virtual classes, with Webex messaging students can connect with fellow classmates whenever it’s convenient for them, engaging in class discussions or informal conversations that allow them to build community, even though they’re not meeting face to face.
UW-Whitewater also discovered that even students who want in-person education experiences still value some remote or hybrid learning options like virtual tutoring, remote office hours with professors, and recorded lectures that they can review after class. Webex also makes group work easier—students can meet anytime from wherever they are.
In addition to providing flexible classroom experiences, UW-Whitewater also keeps accessibility in mind when holding events.
All town hall meetings are hybrid events via Webex Webinars (formerly Webex Events), with live captioning services available for students and staff who need it.
Many of the university’s student organizations use Webex and video-enabled classrooms for their meetings so that both in-person and virtual attendees can join.
And those hybrid formats also improve the accessibility of other extracurricular activities like sales and marketing competitions and student organization meetings.
“I see a lot of promise particularly with those hybrid options,” Mortimer said. “We’ve had quite a few conferences on campus that had a few in-person pieces but also those remote options. I see those as really important.”
Ensuring a comfortable, inclusive education experience is a major priority for the university’s international student program. Starting college is a huge transition for any student, but simultaneously adapting to a new country and culture represents an even more massive shift.
A hybrid, mixed-modality model again proved helpful.
Before they met in person, the international students gathered for a virtual orientation through Webex. Jodi Simek, the university’s international education manager, also made herself available via Webex messaging so students could reach out with questions any time.
Connecting virtually from the comfort of their own homes helped students ease into their new lives, start building relationships, and made them more comfortable when they later connected in person.
“Their confidence in speaking English and working with people from other countries went up so that by the time that they had in-person experiences, they felt very comfortable with everyone,” Mortimer said. “This mixture of Webex and in person contributed to their sense of belonging, confidence, and comfort level.”
Simek also found that the virtual orientation combined with her availability via Webex helped increase her interactions with international students, while at the same time decreasing unproductive interactions.
She plans to retain this virtual orientation model in the years to come.
The university has also seen success with virtual and hybrid events for their general first-year orientation, SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration).
When the pandemic broke out, UW-Whitewater hosted SOAR completely virtually via Webex and Involvio, a leading student experience platform that’s part of the Webex portfolio.
“It was really an incredible experience,” Mortimer said. “It’s really been very beneficial for our students when we had to have everything virtual to have it very organized and in one place.”
The virtual model offered additional accessibility benefits: Members of the students’ support networks, such as parents, family members, and friends, could more easily attend amidst their busy work schedules.
To further aid their transition to college life, UW-Whitewater also organizes first-year students into cohort groups with student mentors. Webex allowed those meetings and mentorship connections to continue happening virtually.
Now that they’re able to meet in person again, the university transitioned SOAR to a hybrid model.
To maximize flexibility and accessibility, UW-Whitewater continued to offer some sessions via Webex and other sessions on campus.
“I think having that meaningful, critical look at everything that you do has really provided the best of both worlds for our students coming in,” Mortimer said.
During orientations and throughout the year, UW-Whitewater also leverages Webex’s various other inclusive collaboration and accessibility features to serve the different learning styles in their diverse population.
Webex Assistant: Keeping everyone included with real-time transcription and live captioning
Mortimer highlighted Webex Assistant, Webex’s AI-powered digital assistant that provides a variety of productivity and accessibility features during video meetings including real-time transcription and closed captions.
“Webex Assistant has been a really excellent addition to Webex,” she said. “There are lots of different ways we’re using it on campus. Some of our departments have asked all their faculty to make sure that it is enabled and turned on for any of their virtual meetings.”
Students who are hard of hearing appreciate Webex Assistant’s live captioning during virtual classes and meetings. And even students who aren’t hard of hearing find that the closed captions help with their comprehension.
“It provides that secondary way of gaining the information that they’re learning,” Mortimer said.
Students also benefit from the accessibility panel during Webex Meetings that helps with screen reader notifications, the chat panel’s customizable size, and the ability to change from dark to light mode which helps some students see more clearly.
Slido: Giving all students a voice with live polling and Q&A
Another important element in ensuring accessibility and inclusion is understanding how students are feeling and learning so you can adjust accordingly.
Webex’s Slido tool for real-time polling and Q&A has proved invaluable for gaining some of this data.
Many faculty members use polling via Slido to let students share their thoughts and feelings anonymously.
They also use Slido for quick daily or weekly assessments to gauge student comprehension and retention.
“Polling software can give you a really quick glance at the student’s ability to retain that information in that class period or over the course of the week,” Mortimer said.
Additionally, Slido can help large classes stay organized. For example, the Q&A panel lets instructors keep track of questions even more efficiently than when questions are coming in via a traditional chat box. With Slido, professors can check off questions they’ve answered and also discern the most popular questions based on which earned the most upvotes. Seeing the running list of queries also helps students realize they’re not alone in their questions—others may have the exact same ones!
As they continue to innovate with Webex to serve their diverse student body, UW-Whitewater makes sure to consistently seek feedback, consulting with various stakeholders from student government and the Center for Students with Disabilities to campus leadership and their university technology committee.
It’s really important to hear everyone’s voices,” Mortimer said. “We don’t want to push out a technology without really thinking about how it’ll be useful for the people who are going to be using it.”
In their tech innovation and beyond, it certainly seems like UW-Whitewater is getting something right.
The university has ranked among the top 10% in U.S. for nontraditional students and #1 in Wisconsin for serving students with disabilities—not to mention among the top 20 in the nation. UW-Whitewater was also honored for the fifth consecutive year among the best U.S. universities by Colleges of Distinction.
To hear more about UW-Whitewater’s efforts to build an inclusive education community, watch the university’s recent Webex Community talk featuring Kirsten Mortimer. And check out Webex for Education to explore how Webex can transform student experiences at your university.