University of Iowa community prepares for courses to potentially move online because of COVID-19

The universities are preparing to potentially move instruction online as U.S. higher-education institutions suspend in-person classes.


Tate Hildyard

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Marissa Payne, Editor-in-Chief

The UI announced in-person classes will be suspended after spring break through April 3. Read here for more information.

The state Board of Regents has asked Iowa’s three regent institutions to “move as quickly as possible towards the ability to deliver instruction virtually,” Regent President Mike Richards said in a statement Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, higher-education institutions across the U.S. have moved to temporarily suspend in-person instruction or send students home for the remainder of the spring semester amid rising numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the country.

Richards said students, faculty, and staff should prepare for this eventuality this week before spring break. The universities will receive specific information no later than 8 a.m. Thursday.

The number of presumptive novel coronavirus cases in Johnson County reached 12 after traveling on the same Egypt cruise, state health officials confirmed Tuesday. There are 13 presumptive positive cases in Iowa.

Confirmatory testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pending.

The regents have also extended the international travel ban by seven days each Monday, effective March 9, Richards said. The travel ban initially took effect March 5 and applies to university-sponsored international travel for students, faculty, and staff.

“Providing this continuous 30-day window, until conditions improve, will allow faculty, staff and students to plan accordingly,” he said.

University-sponsored domestic travel remains an institutional decision at this time, Richards said, but the regents will continue to evaluate daily. Its current recommendation is to avoid areas with high numbers of identified COVID-19 cases.

Colleges have shown signs the universities have been planning to move toward online instruction in recent weeks, prompting instructors to quickly prepare backup plans for their teaching their courses.

A March 2 email sent to Tippie College of Business students advised instructors to prepare tools such as Zoom and OneDrive software to conduct classes remotely in case of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in Iowa.

In the days since Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the first three presumptive positive cases of coronavirus in Iowa on Sunday, UI students have shared instructors have canceled in-person instruction on their own or have said they are preparing to teach online for several weeks — if not a remainder of the semester.

A memo sent before noon Tuesday to College of Liberal Arts and Sciences departmental executive officers and administrators said, “Departments and instructors may not make unit- or individual-level plans regarding teaching activities that differ from UI guidance without express approval from the Dean’s Office.”

RELATED: Number of coronavirus cases in Johnson County rises to 12, all took same Egypt cruise

The memo said the college has asked department heads to work with instructors to categorize courses by whether they cannot be converted to online format (for example, studio-art courses); can be converted to online format with some difficulty; can be converted to online format easily; or are already in an online format.

The college will work with instructors, department heads, and the Provost’s Office to develop individualized plans for courses in the first category and to assess the effect on students’ progress toward graduation, the memo said. The Provost’s Office and liberal-arts school will work together to determine the UI’s technological capability to move courses in the second and third categories online.

Additionally, the memo said Information Technology Services is finalizing a plan to accommodate employees’ working from home if needed.

Previously asked about the possibility of moving courses online, university officials have said they’re following the campus’ critical-incident management plan to cooperate with public entities that manage disaster control to continuously plan and minimize risk from such incidents. The UI has not released a new message to campus since after Sunday’s announcement of COVID-19 cases identified in Iowa.

UI Ph.D. candidate Paul Schmitt, who is a graduate instructor for one 24-person section of a general-education literature course, said there are conversations in academia about the implications of shifting away from face-to-face instruction for students who lack easy access to technology or rely on campus technology.

There are a lot of barriers that could exist for students coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, especially backgrounds that are economically disadvantaged…

— Paul Schmitt, UI Ph.D. candidate

Schmitt surveyed students to gauge their ability to access technology from home and understand the personal effects on their learning. He said from what he’s seen online and around the UI, some students do not have home WiFi or internet access or a robust data plan for their mobile devices.

“There are a lot of barriers that could exist for students coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, especially backgrounds that are economically disadvantaged … so I really just want to make sure that I knew what my students had access to before I made any decisions about how I would run class online,” Schmitt said.

As a graduate instructor, Schmitt said there are concerns with changing courses to an online format that he and particularly his colleagues teaching multiple courses, or those working on a contract basis, may work more than their contracts stipulate with the added labor of redesigning a face-to-face course for an online format.

“I think students recognize the benefits of the classroom experience and the face-to-face experience,” Schmitt said. “And as an instructor, I guess, recognizing that to type out comprehensive instructions and form really coherent and workable online lesson plans, it takes a lot of time.”

RELATED: Some Hawkeyes uncertain amid U.S. universities’ moves to cancel in-person classes for spring semester

Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Department Chair Leslie Schwalm wrote in an email to faculty within her department that many faculty members do not know how to use the UI’s existing course-management software and “it is moments like this when that disparity becomes really fraught.” 

Overall, she shared tips to faculty on quickly preparing to deliver instruction online, emphasizing the need to prioritize information shared with students instead of trying to recreate the classroom experience in a distance-learning model within a few days.

“… Be kind to yourselves — no one expects you to be or become a digital superhero overnight,” Schwalm wrote.

UI freshman Quincy Vogel, who studies biology and pre-medicine, said she has never taken a class taught exclusively online and worried about its effectiveness as an instructional method. She’s currently taking Principles of Chemistry and said there are frequent labs required, adding that it’s “the fun part of having to do chemistry.”

“You can’t do a lab outside of a laboratory environment,” she said. “… So, other than that, the courses that I’m taking, we don’t really need to be in person, but labs and things, you can’t really give us an experience in an online course.”

Vogel said she would value her education the same, but moving to an online format may be less motivating and less all-encompassing. 

“I paid to be at a university to get taught from actual instructors and have the in-class experience,” she said.