Flexible Learning, Events, and Employee Mobility Found at the Heart of Heartland AEA’s UCaaS Strategy

Heartland AEA deployed Zoom to enable flexible learning and communication for staff in the agency's 6,370-square-mile service area.

Founded: 1975 

Location: Iowa, USA

Industry: K-12 education 

Challenges: Needing to support both mobile direct service providers and central support staff with a comprehensive communications platform

Solutions: Zoom Meetings, Zoom Team Chat, Zoom Rooms, Zoom Phone, Zoom Webinars, Zoom Events

Business benefits: Increased student and staff engagement, efficient administrative work, seamless event hosting, and enhanced security

We consider Zoom to be infrastructure for us, and anything we [adopt] needs to be simple and easy to use. It needs to have digital privacy, safety, and security as tent poles.

Jeff S. Weinberg

Director of Technology

Founded: 1975 

Location: Iowa, USA

Industry: K-12 education 

Challenges: Needing to support both mobile direct service providers and central support staff with a comprehensive communications platform

Solutions: Zoom Meetings, Zoom Team Chat, Zoom Rooms, Zoom Phone, Zoom Webinars, Zoom Events

Business benefits: Increased student and staff engagement, efficient administrative work, seamless event hosting, and enhanced security

We consider Zoom to be infrastructure for us, and anything we [adopt] needs to be simple and easy to use. It needs to have digital privacy, safety, and security as tent poles.

Jeff S. Weinberg

Director of Technology

Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies (AEA) work in partnership with public and accredited non-public schools to provide equitable educational services and resources for improving student achievement. As the largest AEA in Iowa, Heartland AEA supports 53 public school districts and 30 non-public schools, serving approximately 150,000 students and 11,000 educators.

The agency itself employs 735 people, many of whom are providers — a mobile workforce supporting specific districts and families, whether in person or remotely. 

Multimedia Specialists Aaron Cook and David Hammer and Director of Technology Jeff S. Weinberg are tasked with equipping Heartland AEA’s agile workforce with the communication tools they need to provide services to students and educators.

To enable flexible learning and communication for staff in the agency’s 6,370-square-mile service area, Heartland AEA deployed Zoom back in 2014, beginning with meetings and slowly rolling out additional solutions to support the agency’s shifting needs.

Eight years in the making

Heartland AEA’s journey with collaboration technology preceded Zoom, as the agency had already tested a few vendors for video conferencing and webinar services. “Then around summer of 2014, we weighed a lot of those together and did a big analysis, tested [Zoom] informally with a few small groups, and then made the switch,” Cook said.

With all full-time employees issued a meetings license, Heartland AEA first focused on robust employee training, eventually building upon that foundation by expanding to other solutions. “We knew the value of a Zoom Rooms scenario,” Cook noted, which led to the workspace solution becoming standard across the agency’s multiple offices. Zoom Phone and Zoom Events followed.

Soon enough, Zoom became second nature to the Heartland AEA team as an inherent part of the agency’s infrastructure.

“We consider Zoom to be infrastructure for us, and anything we [adopt] needs to be simple and easy to use. It needs to have digital privacy, safety, and security as tent poles,” Weinberg said. “Solutions that we deploy need to have simplicity, reliability, and availability in mind, and they must have a robust feature set.”

“That’s why we’re Zoom customers — because the company prioritizes security and provides the feature set our team needs,” he added.

Security as an essential

A focus on security was not only top of mind for Heartland AEA when implementing Zoom, but it’s also a fundamental aspect of the way the education agency operates. 

“Education has stringent requirements as it relates to security – it’s always something our practitioners are mindful of — [Zoom] was just another way to explore how we can do something securely. How it’s being used, who is using it, and safety and security protocols are key to anything we roll out at Heartland AEA,” Weinberg stated.

“We did video tech tips to help educate everyone, showing the staff how to turn on the Waiting Room or turn on a passcode. There’s ongoing education around the safety and security features that Zoom provides,” Hammer noted.

Efficient administrative work & effective education

Once Heartland AEA employees knew their way around the Zoom platform, both central office staff and direct service providers alike found new ways to increase efficiency, build meaningful connections, and enable effective learning.

Central office staff

Team meetings: “A video communications tool is pivotal for regular team or planning meetings — it does improve our efficiency and provides us the adaptability and flexibility that we need,” Weinberg said. 

HR practices: “We use Zoom for HR onboarding and conducting interviews when it makes sense,” Weinberg added.

All-day meetings: “Some meetings do go all day, so using Breakout Rooms is important in those instances,” Cook noted.

Device mobility: “People will [elevate] a Zoom Phone call to a meeting, and then we’ll see that they’re not far from a Zoom Room, so they’ll sometimes grab the people they need and go in there to continue the session,” Cook said. 

Teaching, learning, and events

English as a Second Language (ESL) education: “Live transcription is big for our users. We do have ESL consultants, and they’re always asking how to make things better in this virtual setting. We are looking forward to using the transcription/translation features that Zoom has down the road.” Hammer stated.

Student engagement: We had a direct service provider who was doing some virtual meetings with a kiddo and was not getting the engagement that she wanted. We have access to royalty-free backgrounds and found a really fun dinosaur virtual background, so it almost looks like the dinosaur is attacking her. She said it was such a hit that she spread the word to her whole team,” Hammer commented.

Distance learning: “Summertime is a popular time for distance education, which involves Zoom. [Professional Learning] is a big part of what Heartland AEA does,” Weinberg said.

Statewide events: “There are big statewide webinars, conferences, and professional development events that originate from here. Some people will attend in person, and then we can just add remote attendees in via Zoom,” Cook said. 

Content management: “We use cloud recording as a temporary content management system, so it allows people to host pre-recorded things, or we can host something with Zoom and just have it out there,” Cook noted.

Embracing a full solution set

To provide educational services on such a scale, Heartland AEA relies on a full suite of communications solutions. The agency uses Zoom Meetings, Zoom Rooms, Zoom Phone, Zoom Webinars, and Zoom Events. 

Zoom Meetings

“Previously, who could handle 300-400 people in a meeting?” Hammer laughed. Now, he notes that Zoom Meetings are second nature for many of his colleagues, stating, “We have a lot of employees on our staff where it’s almost old hat to them — they can just throw together Breakout Rooms, assign a co-host, etc. We’ve got some power users.”

Zoom Rooms

For the Heartland AEA team, Zoom Rooms just made sense. “It’s so simple — it’s kind of awesome how we can build these Zoom Rooms using [pre-selected] gear from Zoom. Having that list of Zoom Rooms certified hardware makes our job a lot easier when we’re building and specifying technical requirements for these rooms,” Hammer reflected.

He added, “It was our goal to have it be a familiar feeling for people, no matter what office they’re walking into. They’re not going to have to learn a new interface, they’re not going to have to know how to do different things in different rooms.”

Zoom Phone 

Zoom Phone came next, but it wasn’t without thought. “​​We went through a very exhaustive, thorough analysis of Zoom Phone,” Weinberg reflected. “We gathered everyone we could talk to [from Zoom] and we had the team working through our whole matrix of criteria that Zoom Phone needed to check. It passed with flying colors.” 

The team began implementing Zoom Phone in January 2021, but the entire retooling of their phone system — in the heart of the pandemic, no less — meant they needed a helping hand. The Heartland AEA team tapped Zoom’s Professional Services (PSO) to migrate and provision their legacy conference phones, successfully moving 600+ users over on the day of cutover.

Once implemented, the cloud-based phone system was a hit — especially from an admin perspective. “Having it be in the same interface as the web portal interface is great. You can manage Zoom Meetings, then just go to a different tab and manage your phone users, and assign and make changes. It’s all very intuitive and robust. For example, if I’m creating a call queue for one of our departments, the amount of options available is staggering. It’s awesome that we can customize it as much as we can,” Hammer said.

Zoom Phone made Hammer’s life easier in more ways than one. “It made educating staff a lot easier since they didn’t have to learn something new — you just have to watch for a little button on the top of your app.” It didn’t hurt that employees’ preference for the soft client helped reduce infrastructure costs as well. 

Heartland AEA staff members have grown fond of a few key Zoom Phone features, with many telling Hammer, “This is so much better than the old way.” A few of these features include:

  • SMS: “The number one request from our staff was the ability to send text messages to people they’re working with so it’s not their personal number — that was a huge selling point,” Hammer said.
  • Voicemail transcription: “They can see that the voicemail has come through and read it right there rather than downloading it, especially if they’re in a public place or trying to listen to something,” Hammer added.
  • E-911: “It’s assisted with compliance with Ray Baum’s Act. Part of our onboarding is helping people set their emergency location and select their main office,” Hammer noted.

Zoom Webinars and Zoom Events 

Heartland AEA hosts a fair share of statewide webinars for educators, as well as internal staff. The agency will often entertain anywhere from 300 to 500 attendees at a time — some in person, some on Zoom. Zoom Webinars’ interoperability and reliability help these events go off without a hitch. As Hammer reflected, “[During events] we would switch cameras, all of which are piped into Zoom, and it’s an experience that feels like real life. There are no hiccups or interruptions; Zoom handles anything we throw at it.”

The agency is also using Zoom Events to host larger events, including a recent two-day education technology summit with over 25 sessions, three keynote speakers, and nearly 200 attendees. “Guests [of the summit] said they enjoyed the ability to preview sessions in the lobby and create their own itinerary,” Hammer noted. “Managing multiple hosts and meeting IDs in a central, secure location is huge. We are looking forward to using Zoom Events again very soon,” he added.

A relationship built on trust

When it comes to planning for the future, Heartland AEA relies on its trusted relationship with Zoom. “Our agency is about all the appropriate use of available resources, so I always start by saying, ‘what can Zoom do?’” Weinberg noted. “With Zoom adding more into the fold, we don’t have to go out and find other point solutions to handle things — there’s a familiarity and trust level there.”

That relationship doesn’t go unnoticed either. “We’ve even got other AEAs that ask us for input because they know we’ve got a good relationship with Zoom,” he added. 

To learn more about using Zoom in your educational institution, check out our Zoom for Education webpage.

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