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Professors and students in Iowa face virtual limits to education

Campuses prepare for mix of online and in-person classes

Jul 6, 2020 at 7:00 am
    Ed Folsom, Roy J. Carver professor of English and director of the Undergraduate Creative Writing Track at the University of Iowa, is photographed Thursday at his home in Iowa City. Folsom helped pioneer the university’s “massive open online course” shift in 2014. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    IOWA CITY — Sitting six years ago in a leather-bound arm chair next to Chris Merrill — director of the University of Iowa’s esteemed International Writing Program — UI professor Ed Folsom opined on camera about the ideas of famed 19th-century poet Walt Whitman.

    Merrill had pitched to Folsom the notion of collaborating for an online class about Whitman’s work — marking Folsom’s first foray into the world of digital academia. And the “massive open online course” that came of the Merrill-Folsom recorded discussions — “Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’” — exploded in popularity, attracting a swelling crop of Whitman thinkers from around the world to debate their ideas over online discussion boards.

    “We were hearing from people who were taking this course in Iran, or people who were taking it in Russia, and people taking it in China,” Folsom said. “We were getting just amazing perspectives.”

    The unexpected success of the Whitman project compelled the professors to collaborate on another about Whitman’s writings during the Civil War.

    But Folsom — for all the joy those virtual experiences brought — has maintained a mostly in-person-instruction itinerary since.

    Until that last spring, that is, when he — suddenly and unexpectedly — found himself figuratively back in that leather-bound chair next to Merrill.

    Folsom did not literally return to the room but rather revived that 2014 material out of necessity — as his Whitman and Emily Dickinson course was thrust from the classroom onto the World Wide Web.

    Of course, Folsom wasn’t alone as professors across Iowa’s public, private and community colleges in mid-March were forced to transition from in-person curriculum to online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Some had expertise in delivering digital material and using virtual platforms. Others didn’t and were forced to figure it out in just weeks.

    And although administrators report faculty and staff excelled in making the shift, professors and instructors now face the new reality that spring 2020 might not have been a one-off.

    With COVID-19 still raging and summer courses still online, Iowa’s public universities — and many private campuses and community colleges — recently announced they’ll attempt a hybrid of in-person and online instruction for this fall.

    Most courses under 50 students will happen face-to-face. But larger classes and lectures will happen virtually. Additionally, classrooms will be outfitted with cameras to allow sick or at-risk students to keep up while in isolation.

    Instructors will digitize materials and provide supplemental virtual tools to avoid contact and keep costs down.

    And the UI, for those few weeks left in the semester after Thanksgiving, will ask professors and instructors to wrap the term in the same online-only fashion they rushed to in the spring.

    Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are avoiding that late-term transition — but still keeping students from returning to campus after Thanksgiving travels — by starting their fall semesters early and wrapping final exams week the day before the holiday.

    Virtual Benefits

    Academics for years have flagged technology as paramount for colleges and universities to stay relevant and financially viable in an increasingly global and virtual world.

    Institutes of higher education must offer students more options, opportunity and flexibility to sustain their interest — and maintain their enrollment and tuition.

    But COVID-19 greatly accelerated that necessity and propelled unprecedented progress.

    “It was a heavy lift, and it was probably easier for some than others,” said Anne Zalenski, a UI associate dean responsible for Distance and Online Education. “Some people were already people who had been accustomed to teaching courses online. … Other people had never taught a course online, and all of a sudden — within two weeks — were asked to create a completely different classroom environment that they had never used before.”

    Staff surveys praised the efforts — which included seemingly endless meetings and late nights. But even with that rushed collective experience now under the belts of even late-to-the-technology-game professors, the job of reopening for fall using a hybrid model brings a “different level of confusion.”

    “The one positive about the spring, everybody was in the same boat,” said Maggie Jesse, senior director with the UI Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology. “Everybody had the same situation to deal with.”

    In the fall, the university is employing a mix of rules and strategies that prioritize in-person learning while also keeping people safe — meaning, for example, classrooms at half-capacity.

    “Everything’s going to be a lot more customized,” Jesse said.

    Customization, flexibility and improved access have their benefits for faculty, staff and students, enabling those with personal obstacles to access instruction at their convenience. Online resources can save time and money for students, who for generations in Iowa City have crammed the Iowa Book and Supply store every August for materials.

    Iowa’s Board of Regents, in pursuit of better access, has engaged with an Open Textbook Network of colleges and universities nationally and recently announced a continuing joint collaboration with 40 Iowa colleges and universities “to advance open textbook initiatives.”

    “It’ll accelerate our ability to have more professors, more faculty, more classes that are really using a lot more of these free textbooks or other web-based resources,” said Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the regents.

    Those efforts, she expects, will aim to make lasting change across Iowa’s higher education landscape. But how many of the virtual pushes happening due to COVID-19 stick around, and for how long, is an open question, according to Jesse and Zalenski.

    Clamoring to Return

    Students and faculty — while saying there were impressed at the spring shift — have aired a longing for more traditional times of face-to-face debate; tiered seating in lecture halls; dynamic in-person instruction; cram sessions; and easy-to-organize courses distinguishable by walls and buildings.

    “There was a little part of my brain that in the spring felt once faculty and students do this, what good are we anymore?” Jesse said. “But you can just see the way the students are clamoring to get back.”

    Because, in part, while some degree of digitation can enhance most classes, many learners don’t thrive in an entirely-virtual setting.

    UI English Professor Stephen Voyce said that for his “Foundations of the English Major” — a large lecture of about 150 students, involving six teaching assistants — he used software allowing him to record lectures and toggle between PowerPoint material.

    The graduate-level teaching assistants did “exceptionally well” in helping to transition the course, which met three times a week including two lectures and one discussion, Voyce said.

    “But what it made acutely clear was how important face-to-face education is in order to engage students, to keep them focused,” he said. “We definitely saw an attendance drop off; students had difficulty meeting assignment deadlines, and so on.”

    When the UI opted to pull the in-person plug in March, English professor Jennifer Buckley — whose focus is modern and contemporary drama, theater and performance art — had to shift three courses and was glad to have made heavy use in the past of the UI’s web-based course management system.

    Buckley said the consensus among her peers and students was awe at what they achieved under such intense duress. But with the praise, she and others worry they’ll be expected to keep churning out that same emergency-level of overtime without addition compensation.

    “We did it so well, and with no extra compensation, that could be used to justify making that kind of workload, which is totally unsustainable, permanent,” she said.

    When Folsom and Merrill years ago produced the Whitman projects, they tapped a metaphorical army of helpers who coordinated recordings, source material and online packaging — with graduate students responding to responses, comments and questions internationally.

    “We had incredible support from the International Writing Program, from the technology offices here at the university,” Folsom said. “We had support from the U.S. State Department that allowed us to make these international and gave us the funds to hire graduate students.”

    And while the same level of resources couldn’t go toward each of the thousands of courses moved online in the spring, the shift felt more manageable because it was relatively cut and dry: online instead of in-person.

    Inequities Persist

    With the campuses now embarking on a novel hybrid model of education for fall, professors and instructors have scrolls of questions including whether there will be enough classroom space to spread out and how to handle a possible surge in duties for both students and professors.

    What about special requests from high-risk faculty wanting to keep teaching remotely over Zoom, despite admonitions from administrators to prioritize in-person instruction? Should they split a class into two sections, compounding their workload? What if a professor gets sick?

    “All of this is work in progress. I think none of us still has a sense,” Folsom said. noting a recent “mock-up” of what a fall class might look like — with 15 students in a room normally holding 50, seated 6 feet apart and wearing masks,

    “What that actually, in the computer mock-up, looks like — and what it’s like trying to hear comments coming from students in masks in the back of a room that normally seats 50 — it is going to be an incredibly unsettling and uncomfortable experience that students and faculty are going to be going through,” he said.

    One lesson the spring taught Folsom is the equity an on-campus experience provides. Most students — to a large extent in a typical semester — have similar access to housing, food, internet service and study space.

    When the institutions in the spring sent students home for the semester, they eliminated the campus equalizer — and some students found themselves with fickle Wi-Fi, family obligations, crammed work spaces and new financial woes.

    “Once you distribute these students back out into the world, I discovered very quickly, the inequities just multiply and multiply,” Folsom said. “I had students who were stuck in very, very tiny inadequate places, and they suddenly had responsibilities of helping to take care of children, or in a number of cases to help home-educate their siblings.”

    Some didn’t have reliable internet, all of which compelled Folsom to scrap his original virtual plan that had included some synchronous meetings, and impose a more flexible format.

    With that shift, Folsom’s workload spiked in that he aimed for more one-on-one interaction.

    And while he had the personal capacity for that, inequities persist at the faculty and staff level too, he said, noting younger faculty often have families and child care to negotiate.

    “When I talked to students individually at the end of the semester, I was struck by how virtually all of them felt that the course load that is required of them increased after we went online,” Folsom said, noting his did, too.

    Right now, with enrollments still unknown — let alone student registrations that might tip a potentially in-person course over the virtual trigger — much about fall remains cloudy.

    “Everybody thought we’d have a lot more time to be conceiving of how we’ll be teaching these courses in the fall,” he said. “But, in fact, it’s still at this point hazier to most of the faculty, and certainly to the students.”

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