After the emergency shift to virtual learning last spring, faculty and staff spent the summer using what they learned to develop fall online courses
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

After migrating nearly every class to a virtual environment over the course of only two weeks last spring, University of Iowa faculty and staff took what they learned from the emergency shift and applied it to designing this fall’s courses.

And while they say it hasn’t always been easy, some see silver linings—and say that some pedagogical shifts may stick around even after teachers and students return to the physical classroom.

“As hard as it’s been, it’s also been really liberating,” says Rebekah Kowal, University of Iowa professor of dance and chair of the Department of Dance. “I think when we get done with this, we’ll have tried so many new things that we never would have tried otherwise. And all the failed experiments and all the celebratory experiments, they will all inform us.”

As a result of the UI’s COVID-19 plan, 76.3% of undergraduate credit hours are being delivered online this fall, 11.3% in person, and 12.4% in a hybrid fashion involving in-person and online instruction.

The university conducted student and faculty surveys to learn more about their experiences during the spring transition to virtual instruction and other ways their academic experiences were affected by the pandemic. The results revealed several recurring themes:

  • There is no substitute for meaningful engagement between faculty and students.
  • Good instructional practices for in-person classes are also important in virtual instruction.
  • Challenges unrelated to learning (such as quality of internet access, home conditions, and work schedules) play a significant role in students’ ability to meet academic responsibilities.

Wayne Jacobson, director of the Office of Assessment, echoed Kowal’s sentiments about trying new pedagogical methods.

“Based on what we learned through the surveys, we can say that the transition to virtual instruction forced us to consider changes that before we might have thought would be nice to try someday, but the amount of work to switch over to something new would often get in the way,” Jacobson says. “But now we’ve tried them and found some can be very effective.”

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One of those is the concept of a flipped classroom, which reverses traditional ideas of classroom activities and homework. In this model of instruction, students learn new material on their own time through recorded lectures or readings while class time is reserved for more interactive learning, such as discussions and projects that put new ideas into practice.

Kowal moved to this model after her first online class last spring, which she admits was a bit of a disaster.

“I was trying to do what I normally do,” Kowal says. “I was trying to give a lecture and share my screen and run video, which wasn’t buffering. It was so frustrating. I walked in the next day and said, ‘OK, everyone, that didn’t work. We’re going to change gears and flip the classroom.’”

Kowal uploaded narrated PowerPoints to ICON along with readings and videos that students were expected to read and watch before showing up to their Zoom class, during which they were put into breakout groups to discuss the material.

“I don’t think I’ve ever given students that much responsibility as an instructor,” Kowal says. “I used to feel responsible for walking students through the canonical literature of this field. I dispensed with a lot of instruction in terms of degree of information I gave on Zoom and instead used that time to facilitate discussion. And the students rose to the challenge.”

Along with continuing to use the model for this fall’s online courses, Kowal surveyed graduate students this summer to find out what they wanted to learn and allowed them to help design the syllabus. Responding to students’ interest in anti-racist pedagogies in dance studies, she’s invited two professional Black dance artists to work with her and the class during extended virtual residencies to allow students to learn about their creative processes and works.

Brandon Myers, lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, is no stranger to the flipped classroom, having used a similar teaching method known as Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL).

“POGIL actually replaces lectures to a great degree,” Myers says. “We still lecture a little between problems that students are working on to bring it all together and put it in context, but a lot doesn’t need to be lectured on. They are building up the concepts and we are reviewing it together.”

Myers says before COVID-19, he didn’t assign many online lectures, but he started to do it a little more once classes went virtual.

“I wanted to make sure they had another way to see their instructor and provide another type of instruction, given it would be harder to see each other,” Myers says. “Then during the live class, all the table-based activities we did in person are now done in breakout rooms in Zoom. That was something we had to adapt to—changing the rhythm of class period to accommodate the technology. But it’s important. We need time to challenge each other’s ideas and to explain things that aren’t making sense. You don’t want students sitting at home doing all the work themselves. And most of them don’t want that either.”

In a report on strategies to support faculty and students during the transition to virtual instruction, departments across campus also reported reexamining how they use lectures in classes to improve student learning.

“We are using this forced experiment to find new ways to improve the effectiveness of our instruction,” one department reported. “For example, recording all lectures, even those normally delivered face-to-face, provides students with the opportunity to re-listen to challenging portions. Breaking up a 50-minute lecture into two or three blocks helps students recognize the organization of related topics, plus likely converts lessons into more digestible bites. The advantages of these changes were reflected in slightly improved performances on at least some final exams.”

Whether students found value in their online courses often had to do with how professors deployed asynchronous and synchronous coursework.

“If students felt like they got the chance to engage with faculty about the things they were learning, then they found value in asynchronous opportunities, like video lectures,” Jacobson says. “On the other hand, if the professor uploaded lectures and the students never saw them again, then it had the opposite effect.

“Really what we learned is that many characteristics of good instruction, such as clear expectations, regular communication, and responsiveness to students, are important no matter what the medium.”

The Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology and Distance and Online Education created a cross-functional team called the UI Remote Instruction Team (RIT) in April to provide seamless support to instructors moving between course-delivery modes. Along with building the From Pandemic to Planned website, the team offers customized support, Zoom drop-in sessions, and workshops and college-specific training sessions on a variety of topics, which are recorded and available to watch later.

Since mid-May, the RIT has provided more than 360 individual instructor consultations and 40 large training sessions with more than 1,800 attendees.

Myers says the resources offered have proven a critical resource for him and his colleagues during the transition.

Of course, quality online instruction is ineffective if the student doesn’t have the technology necessary to benefit from it. While an overwhelming majority of student survey respondents checked that they “always” or “usually” had a reliable digital device and internet access, the related comments showed a slightly different story.

“When we asked the same students to tell us more about their tech experiences, some mentioned that it took a long time to do homework on their phone. Another said it took 30 minutes to drive to town where they could get strong enough internet.” Jacobson says.

Jacobson says these kinds of responses shed more light on potential barriers that students may face when learning from home.

“These are questions we did not have to ask ourselves a year ago,” Jacobson says. “Survey responses showed us we need to be alert to the reality for each student. The good news is that there are a whole lot of people on campus working to remove those kinds of obstacles for students.”

On the first day of class, Myers gave his students a survey written by Kyle Rector, assistant professor of computer science, and Kylah Hedding, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. One question asked how often they were able to do internet-heavy tasks, such as attending a Zoom session.

“For the few students who said ‘occasionally,’ I’m reaching out to see what they feel like they won’t be able to fully participate in and what we can work out as a solution to make it work,” Myers says.

Myers says he knows many students were concerned last spring about how exams would work.

“One big thing I rethought over the summer was how students show that they’ve learned the knowledge,” Myers says. “I’ve changed some of my grade-weighting schemes to emphasize that you could do well on homework and less well on a test and vice versa.”

Myers is allowing students to take exams during a two-week span in order to take into account potential connectivity problems and giving them two chances at the exam in an effort to motivate them to go back, fill in gaps in knowledge, and take the test again if necessary.

Dance faculty and students in the spring faced the additional challenge of suddenly having to dance alone in their bedrooms or living rooms and not with fellow artists in a dedicated studio. For dance-technique classes, the department scheduled live community master classes so faculty wouldn’t have to replicate themselves every day for every person on Zoom. They also developed asynchronous materials for the different levels of students.

“So, each level had its own content, but we all had a common experience,” Kowal says.

This summer, the department worked with Facilities Management and health officials to find appropriate spaces on campus to host dance classes that allow for proper ventilation and social distancing. These spaces have included Hancher Auditorium, the Iowa Memorial Union Second Floor Ballroom, Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, Field House Gym, and outdoor spaces such as Hubbard Park.

The Department of Dance also has joined peer institutions in the Big Ten UniDance Hub, which is being administered by Rutgers University to offer virtual master classes in dance taught by faculty members and distinguished alumni at participating institutions.

“We recognize our students are hungry for in-person interaction because it’s serving their development as artists, and we want to do as much as we can safely,” Kowal says. “So much risk is involved for everyone, so we’re trying to figure out a happy medium. Thankfully, we have an incredible team of people who are inventive and dedicated to the students.”

As the semester progresses and moves to an entirely virtual format again after the Thanksgiving break, faculty and students will continue to experiment with the online model and different teaching and learning methods. And once it is safe to return to completely in-person classes, some of those experiments may become the new normal.

“It makes you think more broadly and gets down to the mechanics of the class,” Kowal says. “You think about things such as what is absolutely necessary if you can’t do anything else? Why do we need to be together? What are things we have to do together in a certain space? It becomes really reductive, but it’s also illuminating. I feel a huge potential for creativity as an instructor and as a thinker.”