This fall, the BISC followed Queen’s and many other higher education institutions around the world by providing 100% online programming. The prospect came with challenges academically of course, but as you will no doubt remember, the first step in the transition process from high school to Queen’s University is our Summer Orientation to Academics & Resources (SOAR) program. The Castle was tasked to provide bespoke resources to help prepare the class of 2024 for a completely new way of studying and experiencing university life. This was quite demanding given the unprecedented public health crisis, but faculty and staff at the BISC got stuck in with typical gusto!
It is an ongoing challenge to be so remote from each other, but in these extreme circumstances, there is an increased danger of feeling disconnected as well. The BISC’s SOAR programming therefore focussed on putting faces to names and bringing students together (virtually at least) as much as possible to help build a sense of community spirit. For example, each member of the BISC faculty filmed a short ‘Meet your Prof’ video, where they introduced themselves and explained what they loved about teaching the course in their own words.
The initial icebreaker this summer was a virtual escape room, which was so well received that another will be run just as soon as we can come up with some more fiendishly cryptic clues! There was also a Netflix party, a virtual pub quiz and a virtual open mic at the Headless Drummer. Members of Student Services filmed themselves around the Castle grounds and at Bader Hall, to ground their various instructional videos in place, and remind everyone that our plan is, and remains, to have students physically at the BISC at some point in the near future.
As the fall term got underway, staff were encouraged to make short ‘BISC Tips’ videos to share with students, offering advice and practical tips about staying engaged and energised online. We have also continued to promote the BISC’s ethos of thinking locally and acting globally. Since the beginning of term, much of our Student Services programming has focussed on the theme of global citizenship. We have engaged students on the issue of sustainability through a documentary on plastics in our oceans, put together a series dedicated to celebrating and educating students on black leaders, talent, and history as part of Black History Month, and recently created online content revolving around anti-racism awareness.
World Mental Health Day was on Oct. 10, which the BISC celebrated through its Peer Health Educator Committee, who worked with students to spread kindness through chalk messages on sidewalks and driveways. The committee also hosted a series of lunchtime chats, where attendees prepared food and made connections over virtual lunch dates with their classmates.
With regards to adapting day-to-day academics and learning, the majority of the BISC’s classes are now taught online via Zoom and supported by a multitude of handy course materials that we host on the BISC’s OnQ platform. The Bader International Study Centre has a reputation for innovative experiential learning, active learning and off-site field studies. The challenge for our faculty now is to enhance, develop and deliver their courses in a virtual environment. A shining example is our Film prof, Dr. Robert Hyland, who has been using Google Cardboard to help reframe his course content using virtual reality. Indeed, many of our lecturers are taking the opportunity to use virtual tours and expedition apps to go a step further than conventional seminar-style learning, but Dr. Hyland has actually gone as far as developing his own 3D virtual reality content! You can take his fantastic 3D tour of the Castle yourself using the link in Building a virtual Castle community.
Our lecturers have scheduled online office hours, and we have established an online coaching and mentoring program, so students don’t miss out on the small groups and individual contact that are a feature of the traditional BISC experience. Students have also been encouraged to create a number of virtual study groups which have proven to be a great way to enhance learning, clarify course content, and meet classmates outside of regular lectures.
New this term, we also have the BISC Skills Award (BSA). The award is designed to help students get the most from co-curricular activities while enrolled with the BISC. Our BSA students are invited to work with a coach to improve not just their academic skills, but set goals and attend workshops that will contribute to their personal development - supporting their studies, advancing future career prospects and gaining skills they will need in order to embrace the future with confidence.
So, what of 2021? Well, the outlook is ever-changing of course, and we will continue to monitor public health and quarantine regulations as well as travel advisories. At this time, the BISC is putting plans in place to ensure a safe environment for all students, faculty and staff on the Castle campus. Parents and students were consulted at a recent town hall on Oct. 9. We made students aware of the current restrictions in place in England and advised them of what travel restrictions are in place in the UK and Europe. Given the widely publicized situation in the UK, including the unfortunate handling of quarantine procedures by some other universities, we have since come to the difficult decision to continue with our online programming into the Winter 2021 term.
This decision was not taken lightly. While it is certainly possible to manage the health and safety of our students and staff on our campus itself, we would undoubtedly not have been able to offer the experience students expect, or deserve from the BISC. The experiential and active learning on which we pride ourselves for example, would have been restricted to southern England, and the local area.
We will now instead focus our efforts on Summer 2021, when we hope to have seen the worst of the current crisis. For our part, as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, a number of precautionary measures will be implemented in order to ensure everyone’s health and safety on the BISC’s return to normal practice. This will include physical distancing and the wearing of appropriate PPE in classrooms and lab settings, and midterm and experiential learning trips being restricted to only those areas deemed safe by current travel restrictions.
There can be little doubt that there will be some tricky times ahead. The future though remains bright, despite the challenges of our immediate situation. As part of his Report on the Conversation with the Queen’s Community, Principal Patrick Deane reiterated recently that he hopes to see the BISC thriving on its own terms and fully integrated into his pan-university strategy for internationalization at Queen’s. We shall continue to prepare for the eventual re-opening of campus and the implementation of many exciting new teaching and research opportunities.