University of Iowa students' spring experiences highlight push for campus return

'One of my courses basically ended when we went online'

(File photo) The Old Capitol Building between Schaeffer Hall (left) and Macbride Hall (right) on the Pentacrest on campu
(File photo) The Old Capitol Building between Schaeffer Hall (left) and Macbride Hall (right) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — In charting a course for the upcoming pandemic-plagued academic year, the University of Iowa first reviewed its interrupted spring semester — finding some students have qualms about coming back to campus.

Results released Wednesday from a UI Pandemic Response Survey — administered to undergraduates during the final two weeks of May — show about 7 percent of the 3,124 respondents who weren’t graduating in the spring or summer either are not returning this fall or aren’t sure about it.

Financial and health concerns were cited as the primary reasons for not returning, with academic-related issues also playing in.

Among the UI undergraduates who said they are planning to come back this fall, almost a quarter said they had health concerns and nearly as many reported financial constraints.

UI leaders shared the results during a Wednesday morning discussion on what academics and the classroom will look like in the fall — with officials spelling out mitigating measures meant to quell COVID-19’s spread on campus.

“We are thrilled to be welcoming students back to campus,” UI Provost Montse Fuentes said during the presentation, streamed on YouTube. “We are committed to creating a fantastic educational experience for them this fall. At the same time, we can assure students, their families, and all members of our university community that everything we’re doing, we’re doing it safely, based on good data, careful preparation and readiness to be flexible.”

Measures the UI is taking include moving large lectures and any other classes with 50 or more students online, and socially-distancing those sticking with face-to-face instruction.


In that enrollments can shift, student needs can change and community circumstances are fluid, UI Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Tanya Uden-Holman said faculty should be ready at any time to make the leap to online instruction.

Johnson County, home to the UI, has seen 15 days in a row of double-digit increases in new cases of the infection.

“As has been made clear in the past several weeks, it is very challenging to chart the path of the virus, and I anticipate this will be the case through the fall semester,” Uden-Holman said. “Therefore, it is critical that all faculty be prepared to move their course to a virtual environment should spread of the virus necessitate.”

She highlighted efforts the campus is taking to prepare traditional classrooms for non-traditional social distancing, including creative scheduling, use of conference rooms, room reconfigurations and widespread addition cameras and technology.

But in addressing concerns there are not enough large classrooms across the campus to accommodate social distancing, Uden-Holman said faculty might have to employ more hybrid instruction.

“If classrooms are not available, due to physical distance and requirements, additional courses may need to be converted to online,” she said.

Still, the university’s recent student surveys — including a second one focused on the transition to virtual education — show why the campus is prioritizing in-person education. While many students acknowledged the work teachers put into making the swift shift to online, and expressed gratitude, they also aired grievances about disengaged faculty, disproportionate supports and disappointing experiences.

“In looking across the two surveys, student perceptions were better than we might have expected, but not as positive as we might have hoped,” Uden-Holman said. “The survey results were clear that for students, there is no substitute for meaningful interaction and engagement with faculty.”


Among student comments the university collected through its surveys were ones noting uneven levels of preparation for, interaction during and access to virtual instruction.

“I think the most important change would be to provide instructors with best-practices or training,” one student said, according to the UI. “There was a dramatic difference between the effectiveness of the best and worst instructors, much more so than with in-person classes.”

Another person stressed the same concern about training.

“One of my courses basically ended when we went online because the professor had no idea how to put everything online,” the respondent said. “I am disappointed that I missed out on the course material for a class I was really excited about.”

Some respondents said that after classes switched to online last spring they felt “abandoned” by some teachers who stopped putting in the effort needed.

“Some professors great and did everything they could to facilitate learning, some just posted old lecture recordings from previous years and checked out,” a respondent said.

Even if a course is online, students — according to the survey — placed a high value on active, visibly involved faculty, including through synchronous instruction like in a traditional classroom setting.

“Comments revealed a widespread consensus that direct engagement with faculty members cannot be replaced solely by lectures recorded during previous semesters or static materials that student work through on their own,” according to the survey findings.

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