At the University of Kentucky, Executive Director of Enterprise Applications Adam Recktenwald and other technology professionals have worked to keep traditions alive virtually.

Apr 21 2021

Higher Education Gets a Crash Course in Online Event Planning

With the traditional college experience upended by social distancing requirements, schools look to alternatives to keep social traditions alive.

The University of Kentucky’s 2020-21 events calendar is filled like any typical school year’s: The 42nd Annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference welcomed attendees from around the nation. The UK Alumni Association celebrated homecoming. And to commemorate Black History Month, the Martin Luther King Center held its second annual Men of Color Symposium.

There was one difference, but it was a major one: All of these events were held online.

“The big thing is that this university has been around for 156 years, and we did not shut down because of a pandemic that ravaged the world,” says Adam Recktenwald, UK’s executive director of enterprise applications. “We found a way to keep the doors open.”

Over the past year, universities and colleges nationwide have had to get technologically creative to uphold long-standing traditions and activities while adhering to health and safety guidelines made necessary by the COVID-19 crisis.

While some schools have offered small, socially distanced in-person events — campus tours, for example — most mainstay college events, such as commencement, open houses, recruitment and student government activities, have largely been limited to online environments. To ensure these activities run smoothly, university IT departments provide the technology (such as videoconferencing applications and webcams), training and, when needed, IT support.

“Everyone understands why we’re doing it this way, but I think everyone will breathe a sigh of relief once it’s safe for us to gather in person again,” says Katherine Stevenson, University of Louisville’s executive director of enterprise technology services. “Our campus community has pulled together and worked really hard to make the academic year work.”

Indeed, the pandemic has given IT administrators new opportunities to support faculty, staff and students as they try to maintain traditions and events considered intrinsic to the college experience. “They are building new relationships and finding new ways to collaborate,” says Mark McCormack, senior director of analytics and research at EDUCAUSE.

IT Empowers Campus Community to Host Online Events

In Lexington, Ky., UK’s Information Technology Services (ITS) helps users access the technology resources needed to host online events, says Associate CIO Heath Price. By providing that foundation, the IT staff empowers campus departments and organizations to run virtual activities as they see fit, Price says.

The university primarily uses Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and occasionally social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram. The ITS cybersecurity team runs security reviews to ensure the apps used for online events meet cybersecurity requirements, Recktenwald says.

“We set the IT policies and configure core applications to work in a way that’s inherently secure,” he says. “Then we turn it over to them to use.”

While UK reopened campus this year for small hybrid classes on a staggered schedule, most other events and activities remained virtual, with IT staff helping to facilitate online meetings when asked, Price says. Last spring and summer, for example, ITS helped the Office of Enrollment Management with virtual freshman orientation.

Carol Smith, CIO, DePauw University
“People often think of higher education moving as this big, slow ship, but we’ve shown that we can adapt quickly and make changes fast.”

Carol Smith CIO, DePauw University

Historically, new students and their parents toured the campus, registered for classes, and met with faculty, staff and students. They could walk to an IT desk, where a staff member helped them create an online university account.

When the pandemic struck, he says, UK turned orientation into an interactive online experience using Zoom, with keynote speakers and breakout rooms where students could ask questions.

IT staff joined other university departments in a command center to ensure the virtual orientations went well. If students experienced problems, Recktenwald says, customer service agents were on hand to help. “We made sure the IT staff connected directly with students,” he explains.

MORE ON EDTECH: Colleges strive to create positive social experiences amid COVID-19.

Small IT Departments Focus on Training the Trainers

Nearby, the University of Louisville also reopened with hybrid learning this fall. Though many students returned to campus, it’s still emptier than usual because of social distancing requirements. Most events and activities remain virtual.

The university’s IT department provides training on how to use its video-conferencing apps and on best practices for hosting online gatherings. IT staffers train one or two tech-savvy people per department to then take charge of teaching their colleagues, Stevenson says.

“Our IT department is small, so we forged partnerships, deployed tools and trained the trainers,” she says. For instance, when the university’s student government held a series of anti-racism forums in the summer, the IT department worked closely with students to set up and secure the meetings so that trolls couldn’t disrupt them.

“If it’s a big or emotionally fraught topic, we can consult closely to review how to set up the meeting to reduce the opportunity for mischief,” Stevenson says.

RELATED: Ensure quality virtual campus tours for everyone.

Media Services Team Co-Pilots Major Campus Events

At DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., the school of music streams concerts online. The Hubbard Center for Student Engagement holds online job fairs. Sororities and fraternities have recruited virtually.

The Information Services department provides support and, with major events, even helps to coordinate, says DePauw CIO Carol Smith. For example, the school’s media services team, which is part of the IS department, had livestreamed commencement in the past. Last year, the team helped produce a recorded virtual commencement ceremony and stream it online, she says.

DePauw’s media services team also co-pilots larger virtual events, Smith says. When the campus held an online event on diversity, equity and inclusion, for instance, an IS staffer helped facilitate the discussions.

With more Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccinations over the next several months, universities largely plan to reopen fully this fall. But IT and administrative leaders say some degree of virtual events will remain.

“People often think of higher education moving as this big, slow ship, but we’ve shown that we can adapt quickly and make changes fast,” Smith says. “We’d like to keep that energy and spirit after the crisis is over. When we go back to face-to-face, we can still augment some of what we do in a virtual way.”

Photo Credit: Jonathan Robert Willis