Lone Star Community College
Houston, Texas, US
Number of employees
Number of students
● Maintain business continuity amid COVID-19 closure
● Enable unified administrative collaboration for dispersed staff
● Transition to online-only classes immediately
● Implement Cisco Unified Communications across the College to meet strategic goals for integrated video, voice, instant messaging, desktop sharing and more for online classes and administration
● Support meeting, messaging, whiteboarding, and collaboration needs with Cisco Webex Teams
● Meet distance learning demands with business continuity strategies
● Apply unified communications tools for college-wide interaction
● Retrain workers in careers for growth industries
For the people of Houston, Texas, Lone Star College is an education provider, a life-changer and an economic powerhouse. It adds $3 billion a year to the Houston economy and expands the career opportunities for more than 114,000 students.
In late March 2020, COVID-19 forced the closure of schools, offices and industries across Texas. Lone Star College, with seven campus locations, two university centers and additional offices throughout the state, had to shut its classrooms.
Over the years, the College had continued to operate through hurricanes and flash floods. Through those natural disasters, it had developed and tested disaster recovery and business continuity plans. COVID-19 brought a new challenge: maintain operations in an uncertain environment for a much longer duration than it takes for a storm to pass.
“We’ve had the opportunity to implement our disaster recovery plan multiple times,” says Lone Star College Vice Chancellor of College Services and CIO, Link Alander. “You learn not to rely on just physical classrooms.”
The College already supported some 19,000 students taking online classes.
“Fortunately, closure due to COVID-19 happened when we were on Spring Break,” he says.
“We had time to assess our options. The challenge was obvious: how could we switch classes to 100 percent online learning as fast as possible?”
The challenge might have been clear, but that didn’t make the size of the transition any easier. The College hired instructional designers and continued classes online almost immediately. The professional development group and the online team worked tirelessly to bring faculty up to speed on how to leverage online technology tools.
At the same time, more students were enrolled than in previous years. “We had a three percent increase in completion rates,” Alander explains. “That’s pretty phenomenal to see that kind of uptake when such a drastic transformation is happening.
Compared to many colleges, Lone Star College already had an advantage. The College had a 20-year history working with Cisco. “We started long ago to lock in and cement a very sound network and unified communications strategy,” Alander explains.
Cisco Unified Communications (UC) solutions deliver integration of video, voice, instant messaging, desktop sharing and more for online classes and administration through a seamless user experience. It helps Lone Star College staff and students work together more effectively, anywhere and on any device. Cisco Webex Teams supports meeting, messaging, whiteboarding, and collaboration needs.
“We had everything in place, so we weren’t in panic mode,” he says. “We didn’t have to run around and solve basic communications needs like, ‘How will we answer phones? How are we going to collaborate with each other? How do we build up and segment our teams?’”
Knowing it will likely have periodic interruptions from hurricanes, the College requires a resilient network and a secure collaboration platform. The technology for online instruction and video conferencing was ready. “We hold meetings and can work in real-time through Webex Teams. I can talk with someone like they’re in my office,” Alander says.
Lone Star implemented that business continuity strategy several years ago when Webex was integrated into the College learning management system (LMS), giving all faculty, administrators and students access to the technology.
“Lone Star College has a solid partnership with Cisco,” he explains.
“We built an extremely robust network infrastructure and we deliver our tier one services at five nines availability,” he says. “With regular Webex updates, we have an even better tool moving forward.”
Alander says the challenge was that the technology was not completely leveraged because so many of the classes were on-premises. “We had to help train faculty and show them what was possible,” he says. Lone Star College promptly distributed ‘how to’ material and assembled a team of technology advocates to help faculty get up to speed quickly.
The IT team also ensured that every staff member had the right equipment to work from home. “Everything was cleaned, disinfected, packaged up and ready to go,” he says. “We were here until 2:00 in the morning.”
The IT support desk, usually operating 24/7, saw its hours reduced. Through COVID-19, with a team of remote workers, Lone Star College is now able to provide support from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with Cisco Jabber a crucial tool in helping teams communicate.
The College transitioned from a hybrid learning environment to a fully online experience almost immediately, thanks to a robust Cisco network infrastructure, with Cisco Unified Communications and Webex solutions powering the school’s distance learning and remote administration strategy.
“Given the time pressures, what actually ended up happening was phenomenal,” Alander says. “Our online learning has never been this big. It has never had this many classes.” The College converted 7,436 class sections from in-person instruction to an online format in just a few weeks.”
The process was defined by constant learning. “Everybody had to learn new skills, adapt to the situation, and overcome it,” he says. “It takes collaboration, it takes communication, and a constant learning mode.”
As Houston faces challenges with an economic decline in the oil industry and the financial impact of COVID-19 on businesses, demand is increasing for college classes. Many people want to pursue a new career in a growth field. Lone Star College is expanding its classes and degree offerings into these growing disciplines, with distance learning enabling the College to reach more students.
“Professionals in cybersecurity who graduate from this program will be a major asset to the Houston area and beyond, with great career opportunities,” he says. The College is also expanding into additional degree programs, such as global logistics and transportation. “It’s not just about getting students to take classes,” Alander explains. “It’s about helping students succeed and move into career positions.”
Ultimately, these challenges will help transform operations and drive new efficiencies. For example, one campus introduced a model in which classes are eight weeks rather than a full semester, then followed by another eight-week session. “The success rates are off the charts,” Alander points out.
The College is projecting an increase in class enrollment for the Fall semester. Alander expects a trend toward hybrid learning formats and has the technology in place to increase and strengthen distance learning. At the same time, on-campus learning will remain a key option.
“Part of an education is the social aspect,” Alander says. “Hybrid classes have a higher success rate. You’re with the teacher, you discuss topics with other students, and you know each other. Students help motivate each other to succeed. We expect more students, higher success rates and strong alignment with business. The future is always bright.”
● Cisco Unified Communications
● Cisco Webex Education Connector
● Cisco Webex Meetings
● Cisco Webex Teams
● Cisco Jabber
● Cisco IP Phone Systems
● Cisco Enterprise Networking Switches
● Cisco Enterprise Networking Routers
● Cisco Wireless Access Points
● Cisco Security Enterprise License Agreement
● Cisco Next-Generation Firewalls
● Cisco Umbrella
● Cisco UCS Servers
● Cisco HyperFlex
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