How the UI moved to virtual instruction in a matter of weeks

Due to community spread of COVID-19, the University of Iowa is finishing its spring semester through virtual instruction. With an extended, two-week spring break, students, staff, and faculty prepared for an exclusively online operation.


Hayden Froehlich

Photo illustration by Hayden Froehlich

Lauren White, News Reporter

The University of Iowa made the quick transition to virtual instruction in a matter of weeks to protect Hawkeyes from the spread of the novel coronavirus — a move that campus technology staff have prepared to pull off unknowingly for the last several years.

After the UI announced in early March that it would transition to an exclusively online format because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff involved in supporting the delivery of virtual education have put in overtime to accommodate an entire campus community now learning and teaching online.

The UI’s current online grading and homework system, ICON, launched in 2005, said Maggie Jesse, senior director within the UI Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology.

“The biggest struggle was figuring out how to make hands-on classes available online while maintaining the same level of engagement,” Jesse said. “People have to be very creative and the faculty has been very flexible.”

Jesse said her office’s purpose remains the same, but its work is much different, and employees are now working faster and more intently.

“Once we started getting hints that this was going to happen, a lot of people worked seven days a week,” Jesse said. “Staff put in so many hours into making the infrastructure what it is.”

Anne Zalenski, UI associate dean of Distance and Online Education in University College, said her office has invested heavily in its staff. The goal is to make for a smooth transition when a staff member wants to move something online, she said.

“Not much has changed for us with the exception of increased requests to get media online. We continue to support faculty and work from home,” Zalenski said. “Thanks to ICON, every course generally looks the same, so it is easier for students and faculty to understand where to find things for their courses.”

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The Office of Distance and Online Education encourages instructors to drop many exams for the semester and replace them with other assignments. With only a few weeks left for the semester, Zalenski said, it’s hard to move everything online.

Jesse said the UI created the “Keep Learning at Iowa” page on its website to connect students to resources and faculty members amid the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual-learning changes.

“I’m not saying that we can fix everything that is happening,” Jesse said. “But we can encourage students to talk to their faculty members and to be honest with them.”

Since ICON’s 2005 launch, Jesse said many other technologies have been integrated into campus and helped to connect courses to online systems.

UI President Bruce Harreld told the regents April 1 that the university in 2015 worked to better integrate the campus information-technology unit throughout all facets of the UI, especially in its academic endeavors, as part of the regents’ Transparent Inclusive Efficiency Review.

“We took this step back in 2015 not knowing what we now have in front of us, and we now are facing a significant challenge and meeting it well as a result of those actions we took in 2015,” he said.

The UI already ranks among the top 50 universities in the U.S. for online education and enrollment in online classes at the UI has doubled in the last three years alone.

In the 2015-2016 academic year, 20,978 enrollees took online courses, according to a state Board of Regents report, and in the 2018-2019 academic year, the university had 41,314 enrollees in semester-based online classes. If students took multiple online classes, they were counted multiple times.

“Simply put, that means that [students’] educational experience at the University of Iowa is not suffering at all with our shift to 100 percent online learning, and they can be assured the top-flight academics they’re used to are and will continue,” he said of the UI’s existing online-education infrastructure.

Virtual instruction has changed the higher-education landscape beyond the UI campus, even before COVID-19 moved universities’ educational operations online.

RELATED: Some Hawkeyes uncertain amid U.S. universities’ moves to cancel in-person classes to curb COVID-19 spread

Reggie Smith, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association, said the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a large take-off of distance learning, but aspects of online education really started to appear in the mid-1990s.

Smith said the distance-learning association has created webinars to help people new to the world of distance education and those adjusting to working with online instruction on a much larger scale.

“This is an opportunity to educate, both students and educators, about shifting online platforms,” Smith said. “… It’s a very busy time. But we say, ‘Don’t panic, we’ve been doing this for a while.’ ”

Much of what helps fund new resources for institutions transitioning to an online format is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, Smith said.

The UI is expected to receive $16.6 million from the CARES Act, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency. At least half of those funds must go toward direct emergency aid to students including grants to students for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care.

These resources have always been available, Smith said, but now everyone is just being re-exposed to them and institutions are learning how to operate in the new norm.

“Hopefully one positive that will come out of this catastrophe is an increased appreciation for teachers,” Smith said. “We see how difficult their job is with many students at home and figuring out how to do parts of their job. I just hope people will realize how much teachers really do.”

Smith said COVID-19 will affect distance learning in the long term. It will bring a new, bigger audience to virtual learning, and its biggest impact will be an emphasis on blended learning.

“Institutions will not entirely retreat from online but will connect online to face-to-face nicely. If something like this happens again, no one skips a beat,” Smith said. “More institutions and companies will clean up their blended approach of providing in person and online interaction.”