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Building Community, Apart

What do you do when a culture of community is faced with the demands of isolation? King’s got creative.

“That’s the approach we took the whole year,” said Megan Viens, Dean of Students. “How can we be creative and still do what we do?”

When COVID-19 demanded limited to no in-person contact, students and employ­ees faced the daunting task of main­taining high standards of education and community while ensuring safe practices at every turn. It provided a chance for innovation.

“Surely we can do something different,” encouraged President Dr. Melanie Hum­phreys last spring. “What can we do that would be beneficial to students? We hear that students and instructors value in-per­son contact, mentoring, and engagement. How can we do that while keeping every­one safe?”

It was evident that King’s needed to find new ways to support students to thrive. This led to developing new models of education and making strategic updates in IT to keep the community connected.

Dr. Humphreys proposed a hybrid classroom model where students could physically attend classes in appropriately distanced settings or virtually via Zoom depending on their circumstances and preferences.

There was also an intentional renewal of outdoor spaces for safe social and physi­cal activity. New fire pits, outdoor seating, patio heaters, and a warmly lit ice skating rink have seen a lot of use from students— especially those living in residence.

That’s not to say COVID-19 hasn’t proved challenging.

Adrian Bajaro, president of the Students’ Association and third-year student says that endlessly staring at Zoom lectures can feel isolating.

“Online classes are both good and bad,” Bajaro explained. “It’s great you can stay home if you need to. That said, when online attendance spikes, class participa­tion goes down. The temptation is to get distracted instead of engaging”

What students and staff have noticed above all this year is a culture of caring. Viens checks in with students regu­larly. Tim Wood, King’s campus minister, reaches out to students who are self-iso­lating to ensure they have a full meal or hot coffee and are keeping in good spirits.

“The hardest factor is we’re all weary— students, staff, faculty. But we want to stay passionate, to come alongside students and understand what they need in this time.”

Bajaro said that professors have been sympathetic to the difficulties of the year. “Crises bring people together,” Bajaro noted. “You see that in how profs and students are more understanding of each other. There’s a sense of community and solidarity.”

Bajaro added that students have stood up to this year’s challenges admira­bly. “It’s a display of the tenacity of the students and staff to fight for the best education experience possible. It would have been easy for the university to say everything was online but they decided to take the extra step of maintaining in-person experiences where safe and possible. Students have recognized these efforts and really appreciate them.”

To ensure students had the safety, connec­tion, and community required to thrive in their courses this year, King’s increased IT funding by 42 percent. This covered the installation of video conferencing equipment, new wiring in classrooms, dedicated workstations to run online lectures, increased network bandwidth, and a range of new virtual education tools including a complete overhaul of its course delivery platform, Moodle.

“Having a hybrid model has been crucial,” says Chief Information Officer, Becky McCaffrey. “For students who prefer to be in the classroom, it’s safely offered to them. For students who are more comfort­able learning online, they have an option that replicates the in-class experience as best as possible.”

“King’s is committed to mentoring and equipping our students to bring renewal,” Allen Verbeek, Associate Vice President Academic Services & Registrar, stated. “Maintaining our high standards for course delivery, student-to-faculty, and stu­dent-to-support connection would not have been possible were it not for these investments and the extraordinary efforts of a committed IT team.”

The improvements are the first step in an extensive three-year IT strategic plan which is being fast-tracked to meet the requirements of COVID-19 and the chang­ing world it is bringing.

Crossroad, King’s student information system, is slated for replacement next year. The university will also swap-out close to 20 disparate platforms with a single ERP (enterprise resource planning software) which will allow for new effi­ciencies and streamlined administrative functions in order to redeploy resources to better serve students in other ways.

“Our goal is to make things as seamless for students as possible,” McCaffrey said. “Each investment is ultimately focused on improving King’s directly or indirectly.”

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