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Distance Learning Technology: How Western Reserve Academy is Keeping Community Connected Through COVID-19


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For Western Reserve Academy, a private school in Ohio, community is about so much more than time in the classroom—their students live together, learn together and socialize together. So when they had to make the move to online learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis, they were left with a challenge: to find a way to keep their community connected, even as their students went home all over the world.

Using RingCentral, they were able to move students to online learning and shift teachers and staff to digital communications, with the flexibility to host one-on-one meetings or 500-person webinars within the same platform.

The transition? Surprisingly easy, says Chief Innovation Officer Matt Gerber. And the technology? Useful in ways they couldn’t have imagined before COVID-19.

Getting started with RingCentral

Western Reserve Academy initially started using RingCentral last year, when they were looking for a new communications solution.

They landed on RingCentral because of the flexibility and different communication options available, from excellent call quality  to SMS messaging. Knowing their student body, they liked the idea of communicating with them where they’re already comfortable, on their phones.

And now, web conferencing is a big part of what they’re doing, too. The best thing? Having so much flexibility within one platform. Instead of having to use one software for calling, one for messaging, and so on, they are able to keep everything in one place.

Plus, they’re able to automatically keep a record of communications through RingCentral, an important consideration in a school setting.

When they got the news that they would need to shift to online learning in response to COVID-19, “we were so thankful that we had this in place” Matt said.

As a lucky bonus, using RingCentral allowed Western Reserve Academy to keep all of their students engaged—including the 10-15% of students who returned home to China and wouldn’t be able to utilize some commonly used platforms that are restricted there.

Now, they’re using RingCentral not only for internal communications and text blasts to students, also for classroom learning and more.

Using the integration between RingCentral and Canvas, an online learning platform, has been the biggest breakthrough for this school. Thanks to this integration, teachers are able to keep everything centered around one platform. Instead of having to send emails with a link to classroom time or office hours, they’re able to share meetings right on Canvas.

Staff meetings and internal communications

When we think of online learning, most of us consider the connection between students and their teachers. But for a close-knit community like Western Reserve Academy, the teachers and staff also need a way to stay connected digitally.

The school has been using RingCentral Meetings to stay connected, and even to train teachers about how to do online teaching.

The first time they used it, Matt says, the teachers were so excited to see each other again, “and so it did create a sense of community online, because they were used to seeing each other every day.” After even a week or two apart, they were eager for a digital connection.

While RingCentral meetings are keeping the staff community intact, the software is also proving to be an opportunity for the teachers themselves to learn new skills. “I think our teachers are learners as well and so they were very open to learn how they can best facilitate online learning,” Matt said.

As an unexpected bonus, the teachers are learning new skills in online teaching, and also getting to know the software at their disposal. “They’re experiencing a lot of success and enthusiasm about the tools and feature sets that they didn’t have to use before,” Matt said.

It’s been a kind of professional development exercise, as the teachers learn to use RingCentral in ways they hadn’t before.

Keeping communities connected

Ultimately, though, the focus during this time has been on the students—getting them trained in online learning, keeping them connected, and being sure they’re taken care of.

The school was able to provide some student training on their new learning methods before students went home. The teachers and students alike appreciated how easy it was to use RingCentral with Canvas to get everyone into video meetings.

“We did practice meetings in classrooms with students where we showed them how it was going to appear and what to do, and the students very quickly adapted to that and so did their teachers,” Matt said.

They use RingCentral meetings for remote classes, allowing the teachers and students to still see each other. With students all over the world, they’re also able to record classes automatically so that students can learn in their own time zone.

Teachers are even hosting meetings with just themselves as a way to record video lessons for students. They’re able to share documents and record themselves annotating and narrating as they go through them.

Additionally, the teachers are hosting office hours using RingCentral meetings, creating an online meeting that anyone in their class can join to ask a question, and to hold one-on-one tutoring meetings with students.

Teachers aren’t the only staff that need to stay connected to students right now. The school psychiatrists are also able to communicate with students over RingCentral, thanks to our HIPAA compliance. During this stressful time, students are still able to get the support they need, digitally, using RingCentral meetings.

Finally, because of their community focus, Western Reserve Academy is excited to be able to host webinars for their whole community—500 people—using the very same platform they’re using for one-to-one meetings.

“All of our students can hop on and we can share and have a community meeting, and have people present. While it will not take the place of being there physically it will be a substitute where we can then create areas of community, where people can interact and engage together.”

Online learning with RingCentral

As with so many schools across the world right now, Western Reserve Academy was faced with the question of how to adapt quickly when they were tasked with moving learning online. Armed with the right technology tools and leadership committed to the community, they were able to keep staff, teachers, and students connected.

While they aren’t able to be together physically, Western Reserve Academy is able to keep their community connected digitally, coming together from across the globe.

Originally published Jun 11, 2020, updated Sep 18, 2020

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