Iowa universities deal with pros and pitfalls of online learning brought on by COVID-19

A sign shows support for University of Iowa health care workers on Friday in front of the Old Capitol Museum on the Pent
A sign shows support for University of Iowa health care workers on Friday in front of the Old Capitol Museum on the Pentacrest. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The weather was warm enough this week for University of Iowa students to play Frisbee on the Pentacrest, Iowa State students to slow their walks past the campanile between classes and Northern Iowa students to snag a seat on the Mauker Union patio for lunch.

But for the most part Iowa’s public universities — like private and community college peers across the country — sat eerily quiet as academic activities jumped from the physical world, where the coronavirus continues its rampage, to the virtual realm.

The rapid online transition of thousands of courses and tens of thousands of students has had both its snags and successes as students and teachers adjust.

“Online education is harder for me,” UI junior Jocelyn Roof, 21, told The Gazette from a condo her family owns in Waterloo, where she has set up a home “classroom” involving mostly a folding table in the kitchen.

“I like the accountability that going to a class in person demands,” she said. “And I feel like every day I am just sitting in one place checking things off of a never-ending to-do list that I don’t even know is comprehensive. It’s hard to keep all my assignments organized and ensure I am completing things on time without having a professor there in person to check in with.”

So far, though — just a week into the unprecedented experiment at the UI — Roof said she’s finishing her assignments and watching her lectures, and hasn’t fallen behind.

“I will say, my professors are all being extremely accommodating and great,” she said. “They have been very responsive to students’ requests for extensions and flexibility during the transition.”


All three of Iowa’s public universities in mid-March announced in-person courses would move online for at least two weeks. Then, as COVID-19 cases mounted, the campuses extended their shift to virtual education through the rest of the semester — and into the summer — and closed residence halls and most campus buildings. Students without alternative housing have been allowed to stay in the dorms, but most students are completing the semester off campus.

“If you’re watching this video, then exactly what we thought might happen has happened,” UI associate professor of classics and religious studies Robert Cargill said in a video-recorded message to students.

“ ... But fear not, we anticipated that this might happen,” he said. “In fact, the university — from President (Bruce) Harreld all the way down — had a plan in place and has been monitoring the situation very closely and has put tools at the disposal of the faculty members, so that we can now migrate all of our courses from in-person meetings to online courses.”

A pair of websites — “Keep Learning at Iowa” and “Keep Teaching at Iowa” — host tips and resources for UI students. ISU and UNI, which started back from break a week earlier, have provided similar resources.

The campuses’ presidents — in presenting to the Board of Regents earlier this week — praised their faculty and staff.

“It really does sadden me to see our normally vibrant and bustling campus go quiet,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen told the board. “But we know that our staff or faculty or students are all busy with virtual instruction or working remotely from home for the most part.”

Student experience

Instructors have varied their approaches to the online transition, depending on their courses and curriculum. Some are hosting live lectures on Zoom, for example. Others are voicing over written lectures and making them available for students to listen to at their convenience.

Some are doing both and encouraging chat rooms and group discussions — keeping “office hours” to answer questions or field concerns.

Roof said she has taken a few online courses before. But taking seven classes, amounting to 15 semester hours, online is “definitely more work than I expected.”


“It is hard to keep any kind of structure in my schedule and focus on getting things done,” she said.

Like many navigating new restrictions, Roof cited as a positive that she’s been able to work more “normal hours.”

“My schedule used to be crazy,” she said. “I would regularly log 12- to 15-hour days accounting for classes, extra-curriculars, jobs and homework. Now I have fewer responsibilities outside of class, so I’ve had more free time and been sleeping more.”

UI junior Connor Allison, 21, said he can adapt to any situation — even moving all five of his courses online and finishing this semester from his home in Fort Dodge. But it’s less than ideal.

“Honestly, I hate it,” he said. “Online is going to make classes harder by not having that motivation to do work, since I’ll be home.”

Allison, though, acknowledged the necessity, as did UI freshman Jake Snedic, 19, who had to move out of the residence halls and back home to Naperville, Ill.

Snedic is taking five courses this semester and said he’s not too worried about his ability to tackle them virtually, though he hopes his grades won’t slip.

“Because I’ve never really taken all five online classes before,” he said. “But I’m just really sad about not being able to go back.”

Ahead of the curve

The public universities have an advantage, in some regards, by previously setting up robust online support systems like through the UI’s offices of Distance and Online Education and Teaching, Learning and Technology.


On the advice from another university that every course have a partner website in the campus learning system, the UI has been doing that since 2005, according to Maggie Jesse, senior director for the UI Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology.

“Every course in the registrar database gets an ICON site,” she told the UI Office of Strategic Communication. “The faculty member can decide if they activate it or not, but they all exist. The structure is all there because of decisions we made 15 years ago.”

Additionally, campus efforts over that time to integrate its systems has consolidated virtual resources for students.

“Students only have to worry about that one place to go, which is ICON,” Jesse said. “All the course tools are there. They can find their Zoom links and lecture recordings, have discussions with their peers, in some cases access their textbooks. Those decisions and that work have set us up so well for right now.”

Over the past month, distance and online education staff members — along with the teaching, learning, and technology office — have been “working tirelessly” to help faculty across the UI colleges move courses online, Associate Dean Anne Zalenski said.

“This allows faculty to focus on their teaching and students on their learning, regardless of modality,” she said in a statement.

Although some courses are not as easy to shift online as others — like those that involve hands-on activities and experiments — teachers have gotten creative. And the campuses also have relaxed some policies and practices, for example, allowing students to take a “pass” or “not pass” mark over a letter grade.


Although virtual education has been deemed safer than in-person instruction at this point, the online transition has come with its own set of emerging issues.

The UI earlier this week warned about “Zoom-bombing,” when uninvited guests join a meeting on the video conferencing platform and share inappropriate or offensive content.


UI junior Roof said friends have reported other oddities — from one classmate running on a treadmill during class and someone else cracking open a beer.

She, like many others, has at times found it hard to concentrate “when I start thinking about the devastation and deaths so many people are experiencing, the shortages facing the heath care industry, and just generally the uncertainty of when life will ever return to normal.”

The campuses and regents have gone to lengths to acknowledge those challenges — allowing employees to continue getting paid, even if they’re unable to work, and take more sick leave and care leave if needed.

“The majority of my professors have been so accommodating and great about the whole transition,” Roof said. “I think that speaks volumes about how we’re going to get through this — by giving one another grace, and lowering our expectations of ourselves a bit.”

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