Virtual higher ed rushes to make the grade as coronavirus quarantines up demand

Massive transition may have some silver linings

Mathematics associate professor Steve Butler uses his home office to conduct online instruction to his math department s
Mathematics associate professor Steve Butler uses his home office to conduct online instruction to his math department students, (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

A typically bearded and shaggy-haired Steve Butler earlier this month sat in his empty Iowa State University office next to a chalkboard scrawled with the message: “Take care of your health.”

Now bald and shaven, ISU math associate professor Butler spoke to his hundreds of students via video he later posted on YouTube.

“This is my once-a-year haircut, and it will grow back. And hopefully, when we get to see each other again, it will not be very long,” Butler said, motioning to the now empty space beneath his chin.

Butler joins colleagues across Iowa’s public universities and the higher education world who have been scrambling this month to transition their in-person classes to online amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

At ISU — which last week started back to “class” after spring break — that has meant transitioning more than 6,100 courses to virtual instruction, said ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert.

“It’s a big experiment,” Wickert told The Gazette. “This whole change, it’s a big experiment. It’s never been done before.”

But known for its practicality, ISU has adopted a can-do attitude. Wickert said,

“The faculty has just taken an attitude of, ‘Look, we have to do this, so we’re going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to do the best we can, and it’s going to be different than it’s been in the past,” he said. “But we’re committed to doing our very best for the students.’”


The University of Northern Iowa also started back to class last week in the virtual realm. But the University of Iowa gave professors and instructors an extra week after spring break to make their online move, asking students and professors to resume instruction Monday.

The private Cedar Rapids-based Coe College likewise gave students an extra week of break to make the online transition. Private and community colleges have varied in their responses, preparations and plans — although most, if not all, have canceled in-person classes, events, meetings and gatherings, including spring commencement ceremonies.

Iowa’s public universities, additionally, have implemented temporarily more lenient grading options. These allow students to pick a “pass” or “nonpass” mark over a letter grade, if the unexpected online shift paired with personal stresses drags down their academic performance.

“I’m not really looking forward to it, but it will have to be something that I just get used to,” UI junior Connor Allison, 21, said about juggling his classes on various virtual platforms. “I know that for my College of Physics II class, it will certainly be a challenge to understand.”

In that he’s never taken an online exam, Allison said he’s prepared for hiccups.

“I guess I’ll have to take it like taking my first steps and just continue to work at it and get used to it so that then it doesn’t become such a challenge anymore,” he said.

Professors are coming at the change in much the same way. Some boast years of experiencing with online courses. Others have none. And many fall in the middle.

Those middlemen and women include those who have dabbled increasingly in virtual education by supplementing in-person instruction with online tools and technology — like recording and posting lectures online, listing assignments on websites, linking to resources and videos exemplifying in-class instruction and blogging about subjects.

Regardless of an academic’s cyber history, this unprecedented spring semester has forced many outside their comfort zones — and in some cases presented new challenges.

Need to improvise

Laboratories, art studios, dance classes and design workshops — for example — are harder to replicate online than traditional lectures and classroom discussions. Kirkwood Community College announced Friday all of its labs and hands-on courses will be suspended indefinitely.


“Those kinds of activities can’t continue as they normally would,” ISU’s Wickert said. “But you have faculty who are improvising and coming up with other kinds of assignments.”

Some are using GoPro cameras to record experiments, for example. One ISU printmaking assistant professor, Raluca Iancu, before spring break collaborated with colleagues to 3D print small presses for each of her students. Iancu then distributed those — even mailing one to a student who had already left for break — and encouraged students to send photos of their work.

On the UI campus, College of Law Dean Kevin Washburn highlighted different challenges posed by the online move — largely related to American Bar Association standards and licensure rules. For example, the New York Bar requires no students take virtual courses until they’ve earned 28 credits in regular courses.

Last year, 13 UI graduates took that exam — and 12 passed — with most earning $190,000 in their first year with New York law firms.

“So if we violate the rules, the student may not be able to sit for that exam,” Washburn said. “Thus, we are being very careful about how we move forward to make sure that we do not run afoul of such rules.”

Washburn told students as much in a March 17 email, admitting, “Neither the faculty nor you envisioned that you would be receiving a legal education in a virtual classroom.”

He noted specific complications and challenges, including that faculty would be working remotely and the building — including the Law Library — would be, for most purposes, closed.

“If you told me that our faculty had one year to convert to a legal education involving only virtual classrooms, it would have been challenging,” Washburn told The Gazette. “But we have only had about one week.”

Myriad Platforms

Professors across the campuses are using an inconsistent mix of virtual tools and platforms — from Webex and Zoom to Blackboard or Canvas or Panopto, an online video platform for businesses and universities.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished ISU journalism professor, said he already had a virtual component for the two sections of media ethics he’s teaching this spring — in that he posts lectures online. But, he said, a lot more goes into creating a virtual classroom conducive to learning and student success.

“I think more work can be done on the difference between presenting the best environment for students online, versus whether or not they even understand how to function as online students,” he said, noting he found not every class will thrive under the general “quick start” guidance ISU’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching distributed for transitioning courses.

Bugeja praised that center for its campuswide guidance and technical support, but said he tried several virtual platforms before determining which best suited his purposes. Ease of student access was a top priority.

“There is a myth that college students know technology far better than their parents or even grandparents,” he said. “They know technology as consumers. They don’t know it as programmers. They don’t know it as code creators. ... All those things have to be communicated to the students in a step-by-step manner.”

In acknowledging the extra work involved in making the rushed virtual transition, Bugeja didn’t fault the universities for nixing on-campus classes — as the coronavirus continues to spread and expand its impact on Iowa and the country.

“I’ve been working every single day since last Wednesday to get prepared for Monday,” Bugeja said last week. “So my dedication is high, and we will figure out a way on Monday and then we’ll settle into a routine. The confusion is temporary.”

Old hat for some

Some have less confusion than others, including those who already record lectures and post them online or have smaller classes or fewer sections, making the transition less cumbersome.

UNI political-science professor Christopher Larimer is teaching two undergrad courses and a graduate class this semester — and that graduate class already is online.

“We meet from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights, and so I’m in my office, and the students are all throughout the state,” he said. “But I’m logged in, and it’s like a video conference.”


His undergraduate classes are traditional in-person classes, but they are small — with 15 in one and 10 in another. And he already uses quite a bit of “e-learning” in those courses — posting lectures, assignments, grades, announcements and course materials.

In assessing ways to replicate that “feel for an in-person class,” Larimer went back and voiced over his lectures. Due to concerns about connectivity and access, he’s letting students view them at their convenience. And he’s reserved those times the classes normally met for “virtual office hours,” promising to be at his computer if students have questions or need to check in on assignments.

Larimer said this won’t be a semester he’s super strict with grades and deadlines.

“I’m going to try to be as flexible as possible,” Larimer said. “If there is a situation where there’s no high-quality internet connection or something’s not working right or something comes up with the health of themselves or family members, all due dates are essentially very, very flexible at this point.”

Although Larimer is sticking with his home office as host for virtual lectures, some professors are reserving time in empty classrooms to give their planned talks.

UI law professor Patrick Bauer said he’s been recording his classes for years and will keep doing so “in an empty classroom with opportunities for both ‘pre-class’ and ‘post-class’ questions.”

ISU music professor Jonathan Sturm did the same — although acknowledging he doesn’t expect he’ll be able to do that for all his lectures, which involve speaking to the class, asking for their feedback and playing musical examples.

For those done at home, Sturm said he will use an old-fashioned piece of white paper to replicate a white board and hold it up in front of his iPad.

“And I’ll play the musical examples, and my iPad will record those,” he said, adding he feels lucky “because I did this already for my students.


“Many times, music students have to go with the pep band to accompany a basketball game, or they have to go on a tour with the choir. Or sometimes they just get sick, and they would call and say, ‘Would you be willing to record your lecture today Dr. Sturm,’ and I’d say, ‘Sure.’ So I put the iPad in class and recorded my lectures, and so I already did what I’m doing now.”

Silver Linings

As president of the ISU Faculty Senate, though, Sturm reported “a lot of faculty who are very, very stressed out and very negatively impacted by this.” One faculty member, he said, is a single mother of a 2-year-old. Another is now working from home with three young kids. And another is stressed with eldercare concerns.

“There are concerns, faculty have concerns, and we’re working through them with the administration,” he said. “And we will come up with a successful solution, I can say that. You can underline that.”

And ISU Provost Wickert said he’s even heard some positive feedback from students and faculty — reporting new opportunities and experiences the virtual curriculum has provided. Some students, for example, have become so comfortable using and communicating through technology over the years that they’re more apt to participate in class if it’s through a screen.

“Some of the feedback we’re getting is that students who might not really speak up in class, in a face-to-face class … are engaging in the discussion boards and chat panels and things a lot more,” Wickert said.

They’re finding benefit in being able to go back and re-listen to lectures and watch videos more than once and even slow down and pause a lecture to improve comprehension.

“And also students have the ability to comment or ask questions at specific points in a lecture,” Wickert said, “And then that helps faculty understand what parts of a lecture students might have more trouble with. Or maybe that’s material in the class that needs more explanation.”

ISU math professor Butler sees the silver lining, too — expressing skepticism things will ever “go back to normal” in higher education.

“So let’s say a vaccine comes out and everything’s back to normal, will education change? The answer is yes,” he said. “Because one of the things that happens is that faculty can get complacent.”

They develop a certain set of notes, in certain set of styles, for example,


“And they stay in a rut for a long time,” he said. “This has forced them to walk themselves out of that rut. And I think it’s opening their eyes to different possibilities.”


04:39PM | Sun, September 27, 2020

08:00AM | Sun, September 27, 2020

12:57PM | Sat, September 26, 2020

View More CORONAVIRUS Articles

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.