University of Iowa classrooms adapt a year into the pandemic

After several shifts in the past year of the pandemic, University of Iowa professors and administrators look back at what they’ve learned about teaching in the last year and how they move back to predominantly in-person teaching


Jenna Galligan/The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa sophomore Joslin Some submits a post-exam video for his class, Data Structures, on Saturday, March 13, 2021 at his apartment in Iowa City. Some is an international student from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso in West Africa. He is studying computer science at the university.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

When Rebecca Clark began to move her classes online, she didn’t know how to fit everything in.

Zoom and other commonly used forms of online modalities for learning were not created with nonverbal languages in mind, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the American Sign Language Program said.

Whether online or in-person, Clark said her department not only had to seek out better ways to teach the language, but they had to purchase new equipment to make sure their presentations were clear to students on Zoom.

From shifting classes online in March 2020 to hybrid and fully-in-person classes in the 2020-21 academic year, the University of Iowa has seen several changes in its education modality a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

From going to online webinars to learn how to mitigate Zoom malfunctions, to purchasing new camera technology, UI professors and administrators have found various solutions to keeping classrooms functional after classes moved fully virtual on March 11.

In the fall 2020 semester, the UI prioritized classes with less than 50 students for in-person learning. As the UI prepares for fall 2021, Tanya Uden-Holman, the associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of the University College, said more classes will be in-person because of lower transmission of COVID-19 in recent months and vaccinations becoming more widely available.

“Our classes that are over 150 will be online,” she said. “Colleges do have the ability to ask their larger classes to be in person. We’ve had several exception requests come through…so some bigger classes that really want to be in person, we’ve made that happen.”

She said some classes that are under 150 people can also be permanently moved online through the associate dean of a given college. The university, however, is still finalizing its plans regarding the next academic year.

Clark and the ASL department, however, is not alone in needing to get creative with its classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of the UI’s School of Art and Art History Steve McGuire said it continues to be difficult to teach and create art without an active environment.

Faculty members in his department are used to being hands-on, he said. While the school continued to look for opportunities to better online classes, they had to ensure students had access to the materials necessary for their classes.

As a solution, the school created tool kits for students at the beginning of the semester, said McGuire.

“The toolkit packets had both materials and tools for students to create work off campus,” he said. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than everyone anticipated. We found a creative way to move forward.”

While departments all over the university had to determine which classes could be held in-person versus online this academic year, the College of Nursing had to work to create a curriculum that balanced protecting its students from coronavirus transmission and allowing students to get the clinical training they need.

RELATED: University of Iowa professors balance health and learning with online lectures

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the UI’s College of Nursing Anita Nicholson said the college moved classes of more than 80 students online and kept labs and clinicals face-to-face.

“The social distancing and the isolation has been very hard on our nursing students, but I think a saving grace is our students getting to come together in our laboratory simulation center and in the clinical setting,” she said. “That has been a lifeline for our students.”

Some smaller classes were still pushed online, said German and Russian Lecturer Anna Dyer. Dyer said she learned to appreciate and truly value in-person teaching after being mostly online for the last year. She said everyone in her department was all-hands-on-deck this year to prepare for COVID-19.

“The teachers and the students adjusted, and they adjusted well,” she said. “It was difficult, but it felt like everyone was ready to do their part. My colleagues worked tirelessly, and it was fantastic. And the students, they made it easy to teach online because they put effort into the transition, too.”

Dyer said the past year has served as an important educational experience for professors and students alike. She said it not only impacted how she and some of her colleagues feel about online teaching, but it allowed people to work more collaboratively to ensure online learning worked.

“In the first part of the spring semester in 2020, it was emotionally taxing not knowing what was going on and how long we were going to be online,” she said. “Now that we’ve been in that system for a year, everything has settled and I’m not as stressed. There are still challenges, but we’ve learned a lot from this.”

Even though the last year strained educators, several UI faculty members told the DI they learned new ways of teaching they wouldn’t have sans pandemic.

RELATED: University of Iowa sets course for primarily in-person instruction in fall 2021, classes of 150 to remain online

Spanish Professor Kristine Muñoz said the last year has changed the way she teaches after 42 years as an educator. One of the major differences, she said, is that she plans to continue using Zoom and online teaching when the university returns in person if there’s bad weather or if she’s sick.

“We had two weeks of dangerously cold weather [in January] and I thought that since everyone was so used to doing classes online that I didn’t see a compelling reason to risk our lives going to campus,” she said. “…When we adjust back in the fall, I would say there are things about online education that I will hold onto, like moving classes online when necessary.”

The UI’s School of Art and Art History, however, has run into issues when it comes to allowing its student to have exhibits of their work — something that is mandatory for students in the bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts programs.

This spring, McGuire said the school is going to have video and photographs of all students’ gallery work and will put it on its website since they can’t have the normal festivities surrounding the exhibitions.

“We unfortunately can’t hold receptions for students, which is a big part of the exhibition experience,” he said. “But, now, we’re in the process of installing a virtual exhibition system that will live online and be accessible for two years. People will be able to see the exhibition and get close ups of work. We’ll continue doing that even when we return fully to campus.”

Clark said the pandemic forced the UI’s ASL department to change the way it tests students — something that turned out to be a benefit for students and faculty alike.

“Previously, we had students sign projects for us to assess their expressive language skills and then they would watch a video that would test their receptive skills,” Clark said. “Now, we can do both of those in one exam which is exciting. We can do more in the target language and that’s a direction we’ve always been interested in and going online got us there faster.”

As the UI looks towards the fourth semester of the pandemic in August 2021, Uden-Holman said the university is focusing on meeting students’ needs, especially when it comes to students who have not been on campus as much as students in a typical year.

She said this is on the forefront of administrators’ plans and will continue to play an important part in crafting the next academic year.

“We are thinking about things we need to keep in mind,” she said. “…We’re looking at additional support that either our current first-year or second-year students will need to move into next year.”