Planning for the unprecedented | Duke Kunshan University

Planning for the unprecedented

August 24, 2020


Incoming students in the Class of 2024 began arriving on the Duke Kunshan campus for orientation on Aug. 20

By Craig McIntosh
Staff writer

Scott MacEachern had originally planned to travel to Africa this summer to advance his archaeological research and unravel the mysteries of the continent’s past. Instead, he’s spent the past four months focused on a very different puzzle: How to prepare Duke Kunshan for a semester like no other.

Since late spring, MacEachern, vice chancellor for academic affairs, has been working alongside leaders at DKU and Duke University to plan for a unique set of circumstances resulting from the global response to Covid-19.

For a start, while China-based students and faculty have already arrived back on campus, restrictions on international travel have prevented many of those currently overseas from returning to Kunshan. In addition, DKU is hosting about 160 students from Duke and other universities who were unable or preferred not to travel to the United States.

“To say the situation is complicated would be an understatement. There have been a lot of logistical and technological challenges in the run-up to the fall semester,” said MacEachern. “But it’s also exciting. We’re breaking new ground for DKU and, it feels, in higher education.”

Duke Kunshan closed its campus in response to Covid-19 in January and, within a matter of weeks, moved instruction in its undergraduate and graduate programs entirely online for the rest of the spring semester.

As the outlook in China gradually improved, the university began to plan for the full reopening of campus in the fall. However, as the global situation evolved, it quickly became apparent the university needed a more flexible strategy that provided both in-person and remote learning options.

When classes begin in Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate program on Aug. 28, about 650 students across the classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024 are expected to be onsite in Kunshan while almost 250 will be dotted around the world, including 30 students based on the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina, and another at the Duke University Marine Lab.

“Completing the spring semester online provided many lessons in terms of internet access, working over different time zones, online student-faculty interaction; these were all critical issues,” said MacEachern. “The next challenge was how to shift to a hybrid model in which courses offered both face-to-face and remote learning options.”


Freshmen play a 3D version of tic-tac-toe to break the ice

Tools for teaching

Long before students began arriving back on campus, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) launched a program to help faculty design and develop courses that would be successful in any mode of delivery – in-person, online, or a combination of the two.

The CTL created a platform to share case studies, articles, Duke Learning Innovation (DLI) resources, and online tools and guides, and arranged guest speakers, forums and webinars for faculty to discuss and gain insight into hybrid teaching. Several undergraduate students also designed a module for the program and contributed throughout the summer by offering feedback and taking part in a panel discussion.

“All the content in the program was tailored to the DKU context and environment, and to stimulate maximum discussion and interaction,” said Haiyan Zhou, associate director of the CTL. “Our faculty have shown immense dedication and resilience in adopting innovative pedagogies and new technologies. They’re thinking creatively about how to encourage active learning beyond traditional environments.”

More than 130 faculty members took part in the training, including about 40 professors newly hired for the undergraduate program. In addition, most new faculty participated in this year’s Learning Innovation Fellowship, co-organized by the CTL and DLI, which introduced Duke Kunshan’s interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum and student-centered teaching practices.

Faculty have been getting to grips with web-based teaching tools since February, when DKU launched its virtual campus. The main platform for online course delivery is Sakai, a learning management system used for sharing readings, assignments and recordings, while Zoom videoconferencing is for live class sessions, team meetings and office hours.

The university will continue to rely on these platforms; however, to support the flexible teaching model, the campus has undergone a sweeping technology upgrade to make it easier for students, faculty and staff across the globe to communicate and interact.


Students and parents receive a tour on move-in day, taking in classrooms upgraded with the latest remote collaboration technology

Since mid-June, DKU’s Office of Information Technology (IT) has been equipping classrooms and team rooms with remote collaboration tools, such as Zoom Room and WebX, two integrated audio-visual systems designed for group discussions and content sharing. Classrooms also now have forward-facing cameras to allow faculty who are teaching remotely to better observe and engage with students in class.

“Our philosophy was to equip all classrooms with remote teaching and learning capabilities,” said William Wan, director of IT. “We tried to imagine all the different teaching scenarios and then translate this into tech solutions.”

Working with government agencies, Duke Kunshan has been able to help several faculty and key staff return from overseas in recent weeks. This includes Marcia France, dean of undergraduate studies; Raphael Moffett, dean of student affairs; James Miller, associate dean of interdisciplinary strategy; and Shuyi Wang, director of graduate programs, who all received support during transit and quarantine.

“Thanks to support from government agencies at both national and provincial levels, we became the first university in Jiangsu province to secure special visa invitations for all our foreign faculty and staff,” said Xiaolin Chang, vice chancellor for government relations.

Meanwhile, to provide more opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students around the world to take part in live class sessions, administrators have updated course schedules to incorporate morning and evening meeting times.

“Near or far, we want all of our students to feel part of this unique, global community at DKU,” MacEachern said.


As part of Duke Kunshan’s safety protocols, facemasks and social distancing are required in classrooms and public spaces

Staying safe together

With Covid-19 continuing to pose a risk, a crucial part of Duke Kunshan’s preparations for the fall semester was devising strict health and safety measures that protect the campus community while causing as little disruption as possible to the college experience.

Students were required to begin completing daily health reports using a DKU-built app 14 days before their arrival on campus, while those coming from areas with recent cases of Covid-19 needed to pass a nucleic acid test.

Facemasks and social distancing are required in classrooms and public spaces, including dining areas, and body temperature scans are mandatory upon entry to campus for all students, faculty, employees and visitors. In addition to the main campus, safety protocols apply also to the Blue Oasis student center at Dayu Bay, and residence halls at nearby Scholars Hotel, Talent Apartment and Canada International School, Kunshan.

“Protecting the DKU community by creating a safe environment to live, study and work is our top priority, but also it’s every individual’s responsibility to take precautions that protect themselves and others from Covid-19,” said Roger Fan, senior director of operations and university environmental health and safety.

Students in Duke Kunshan’s incoming Class of 2024 began moving into their campus accommodation on Aug. 21 ready for a weeklong orientation, including information sessions, such as on academic advising and the interdisciplinary curriculum, as well as a talent show, resources fair, and sports expo. Visiting Duke students arrived earlier and received a warm welcome at a town hall meeting on Aug. 15.

For freshmen based overseas, the offices of student affairs and academic affairs have been hosting weekly virtual orientation sessions since July, introducing them to DKU courses and Chinese culture, as well as offering workshops on diversity and inclusion, and on how to embrace change in uncertain times.

“This fall will be different for so many reasons, but one constant is the unity and spirit among DKU students,” said Raphael Moffett, dean of student affairs. “These are extraordinary times, but our community has risen to the challenge. I’m very optimistic that students will have a dynamic and impactful experience.”


Classes in the fall semester begin Aug. 28