How Oxford University’s Saïd Business School used Zoom to deliver world-class education during COVID-19

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood June 23, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Use of the Zoom platform proved a key defence against COVID-19 - with not a second of high-ticket teaching time lost, says the School’s CIO

An image of Oxford Said Business School
(Image sourced via Oxford University website)

The adoption of digital collaboration platform Zoom prior to the first wave of COVID in 2019 proved to be a very worthwhile investment for Oxford University’s Saïd Business School—with the institution claiming that not a second of teaching time was lost during the global health crisis.

In numbers, that means that last year alone, using its enterprise-wide license, the School supported 80,403 Zoom meetings that connected 565,000 participants across 197 countries.

The video, chat and collaboration platform has also proven the ideal basis for a new School-wide hybrid digital teaching and collaboration model, said its Chief Information Officer, Mark Bramwell. He explained: 

We were very lucky - or you might say strategic - in that we had put in place several foundations which allowed us to pivot and deal with COVID-19. I wouldn't say we were early adopters at that stage because the software had been around for a little while, but it was already an embedded part of our collaborative portfolio.

But we also acknowledge that learning is an incredibly personal experience, and we never focus on any single delivery media or channel.

The Business School - which operated as the Oxford School of Management Studies until a 1996 rebrand, following a £20m donation from Syrian-Saudi-Canadian financier Wafic Saïd - offers 15 degree programs in business, management, and finance. Its courses for executives were rated as best in the UK by The Financial Times, and its 2022 MBA graduating class included 355 students from 71 nationalities, 156 of them women.

Supporting students and faculty through the COVID ‘pivot’

The kind of students who register to study at Saïd is an important factor in how the School approaches servicing them, stated Bramwell. He explained: 

Perhaps differently to the main UK Higher Education undergraduate model, where everybody's paying £9,000 fixed student tuition fees, our MBA cohort is paying more like £60-70,000 to be here. 

So, I don't refer to them as ‘students:’ they’re VIP customers. And so the quality of experience that they expect, rightly and understandably for that tuition fee, is very high. Not only do we in IT have to ensure they can connect and do their work with us, but it’s also all got to be available - and available 365/24 x 7.

Bramwell also stresses how much a factor making Zoom a teaching platform success during various lockdowns also involved structured support of not just the student body, but teaching and other staff. He added: 

I don't think we should underestimate how well our faculty responded to some of the pressures that have been placed on them. Sure, we've got some of the most eminent, world-leading professors in the world, but they had to go through this in the same way as everybody else - and, perhaps pivot and change more than others, because they're on the front line of teaching. And this obviously completely impacted that.

Techniques Bramwell and his team used to help support faculty centered on adequate training in how to make homeworking effective. A lot of this involved the mechanics of getting equipment to fit into faculties’ homes, he said, as dining rooms,  kitchens and bedrooms were suddenly lecture theatres or mini-production studios.

Training was also needed, he went on, around a new teaching process, as some colleagues needed guidance in terms of how to use the technology - and that was more than just on how to set it up. Bramwell said: 

Obviously, teaching online is very different to teaching face-to-face. You’re not only delivering the class, so moderating the chat and managing the presentations, you also must make sure everybody is contributing, participating and being involved. That's where we found we had to provide a little bit of support, in some instances.

The experience during the COVID-19 pandemic at the School has also led to the creation of new roles that didn't previously exist before, such as the new role of ‘virtual classroom assistant’, as well as requiring on-going resources to produce classes online, face-to-face and hybrid. 

Provisioning of equipment was also a slight issue at the start of the health crisis, as with the world moving online overnight, availability of some equipment became scarce. 

Saïd responded to this with flexible purchasing procedures; if Bramwell’s group was unable to provide the necessary IT, faculty could buy it on their credit cards and get it reimbursed quickly. Such purchases, he added, were always recommended against a School-supplied framework of recommended equipment and against guideline costs.

Saïd’s outreach and CSR mission

Whilst Bramwell did not find securing online teaching a major technical issue, there was an education process that was required. He said:

There was a lot of press around all that at the time, but I told my internal stakeholders that we have stringent security controls as our IT strategy embeds security by design of every new portfolio, every new supplier, and every new application we bring in. 

But if there were issues at the time, a lot of it was not around the physical security of the platform, but sharing personal details. Locally, a councillor hosting a Zoom meeting posted their password on Facebook and Twitter. But that didn’t happen with any of our people.

Zoom is also a key part of Saïd’s social outreach programme and its corporate social responsibility agenda, in terms of making Oxford more accessible. The technology means the School can take its offer into geographies, regions and to learners that would not have previously been possible. Bramwell said: 

For us, technologies like Zoom underpin and enable that. Pre-COVID, we were already going into online, but the fact that we've been able to build an online community of 30,000-plus participants just shows what's possible by using this kind of technology.

Part of that mission is its on-going £60mn project to convert Oxford’s Victorian-era old power station into a new executive education campus, which will be full of tech for teaching its VIP customer students both on campus, and via the Web. 

That future model, Bramwell concluded, will involve video conferencing and other innovations - but exactly how that looks, he doesn’t think anyone knows yet. He said:

I think we have got over the hump of familiarity and that's a given now - the world has accelerated in terms of use of these collaborative technologies. 

So where next? That’s where the product roadmap discussions with the Zoom executive team and the Zoom technical teams are of real interest to me: virtual reality, augmented reality? Is it holographic projection? I’m fascinated what the next step change will be, because everybody is now playing in a very congested space.”

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