CORONAVIRUS

Thousands enrolled in experimental winter terms across Iowa universities

'Our students' interest exceeded all expectations'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

In a year that’s forced Iowa’s public universities to think outside the box — or classroom — all three campuses are taking advantage of a longer winter break by offering accelerated condensed online courses for credit toward degrees the pandemic might have slowed and graduations it might have delayed.

Students, likewise, are taking advantage of the opportunity to make up for lost ground or expedite their time to graduation — with thousands across University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa enrolled and in the midst of learning over the extended break.

“The response from students has been very strong,” according to UI University College Dean Tanya Uden-Holman, who also serves as associate provost for undergraduate education. “Registration opened Nov. 30, and there was so much student interest that we increased seats and added sections.”

Although UI hasn’t yet shared total enrollment for its four-week winter term, by the early registration deadline of Dec. 11, it had more than 800 signed up — already above enrollment in previous UI winter sessions.

Last winter, the university enrolled 781 for its winter session; it enrolled 601 in the 2018-19 winter; and UI tallied 598 in its 2017-18 winter, according to the UI Office of the Registrar.

“Typically our winter sessions have been three weeks,” Uden-Holman said. “So extending the session to four weeks is allowing us to offer a variety of accelerated three-credit general education courses.”

The UI winter session began Monday and will extend through Jan. 22 — with the spring semester starting Jan. 25. Because Iowa State and UNI ended their fall semesters earlier than UI — the day before Thanksgiving — they initiated winter learning sooner.

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Iowa State’s five-week winter session began Dec. 14 and will wrap Jan. 21. UNI is offering a trio of winter learning options: a six-week session from Nov. 30 to Jan. 22, with a two-week break from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1; a three-week session from Nov. 30 to Dec. 18; or a three-week session from Jan. 4 to Jan. 22.

Although UNI hasn’t offered a winter term in recent history, preliminary enrollment for this year’s sessions is 1,394 students — nearly 15 percent of its total fall enrollment of 9,522.

“We’re pleased with the response from students who want to further their education over the longer winter break,” said UNI spokesman Steve Schamdeke.

Iowa State likewise saw strong interest in students wanting to get ahead over the break, reporting an enrollment in its 25-day term of 2,297 students. A big chunk of those — 43 percent — are ISU seniors, followed by juniors accounting for 26 percent of the winter enrollment; sophomores making up 18 percent of the enrollment; and freshman securing the final 12 percent of the total.

About 7 enrolled in ISU’s winter term are not seeking degrees, according to Iowa State, which also boasted strong interest in the virtual offerings. Of the 52 ISU courses offered this winter session, five reached capacity and 19 are 90 percent full. Only one was dropped due to low enrollment.

In a statement, ISU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Beate Schmittmann — who also co-chaired a winter session planning committee — said, “Our students’ interest exceeded all expectations.”

“This is an experiment,” she said. “We really didn’t know what to expect. But I’m not sure we thought we’d get to 2,000. It’s a very good response from our students.”

For several ISU courses, the campus raised an enrollment cap to accommodate student demand — like at UI, where most classes were limited to 50 or fewer students “to ensure more personal attention from faculty,” according to Dean Uden-Holman.

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“Though several of the courses increased their enrollment caps to 75 or 100 to accommodate students who were on waitlists,” she said.

Some UI winter courses offering two or three credit hours toward general education or specific major requirements include “Inequity in American Sport” under the gen-ed diversity and inclusion banner; “Interpretation of Literature” as an English general education course; and the social sciences gen-ed “Introduction to Developmental Science.”

Among one-hour courses UI is offering are several aimed at enhancing the college experience — including during a pandemic — like one titled, “Using social media humor to cope with COVID-19 stress.”

Condensing semester-length courses into three to five weeks took some effort across the campuses, like at Iowa State, where mechanical engineering teaching professor Emmanuel Agba has been instructing a computer-aided design course for five semesters.

He agreed to attempt the feat of squeezing his months of curriculum into five weeks as demand for his specific course is high — with a waitlist for the spring version boasting more than a dozen names.

The plan, according to ISU Strategic Relations and Communications, involves Agba spending 80 synchronous minutes with his 27 students a day — during which he delivers a live lecture, to be posted online, and gives instruction for the day’s project.

The goal is for students to spend no more than six hours a day on the course, with weekly exams, and Agba attending office hours from 11 a.m. to noon — to ensure expeditious work.

Acknowledging the voluminous amount of work in such a short time period can be daunting, Agba said students coming in with appropriate expectations and strong retention skills will succeed — given little time for relearning material.

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Classes chosen for Iowa State’s winter term met at least one of a handful of criteria — including enrolling large numbers in the spring semester, meaning a truncated version could alleviate some of the pressure and shrink waitlists.

When its experimental winter session concludes, ISU’s Schmittmann said the campus will measure success — and decide whether to do it again — based on student feedback, like whether they were able to complete their coursework.

UI also plans a close look at its winter session “to determine if this is something we should consider in the future,” Uden-Holman said.

“But for now, we hope this will help our current students stay on track for graduation in what has been a challenging year in so many ways.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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