University of Northern Iowa professor Anelia Dimitrova expected the coronavirus would cause a two-week spring break extension – not a swift end to campus life and the beginning of teaching online. 

She thought it was odd, she said, when one of her students noted in March that their last class before spring break could be their last meeting in person.

“Very quickly it became apparent that that was very naive and idealistic,” Dimitrova, who teaches journalism and ethics, said. 

The first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Iowa March 8 and the numbers of cases continue to rise, despite statewide closures of schools, restaurants, churches, stores and other businesses. Universities will finish semesters online, graduation ceremonies are cancelled or going virtual, and summer plans are uncertain. 

More than a month later, Iowa professors, like Dimitrova, are learning how to deliver a world-class education from behind a computer screen while also navigating working from home, changes in coursework and uncertainty on what comes after this shift in teaching. 

Iowa State professor and Faculty Senate President Jonathan Sturm said ISU faculty switched to distance learning quickly in March 2020. “There’ll be some changes, you know, some faculty will have to decrease their expectations. Things may happen a little more slowly.” Photo courtesy of Jonathan Sturm

A snapshot: The changes affect 6,000 faculty members at Iowa’s public universities –– 3,421 at University of Iowa, 1,910 at Iowa State and 697 at Northern Iowa. At UNI, 300 laptops were checked out so students would have technology to finish classes, meaning not all students may be able to participate. One professor said she spends four hours straight online teaching two, two-hour courses. Others said grading time doubled or tripled.

The end date for online instruction is unclear. Iowa State and University of Iowa announced summer courses will proceed online. There’s also the question of the effectiveness of online learning.

Distance learning grows

Distance learning was a growing part of university culture long before the pandemic.

Students participating in at least one online course in fall 2015 made up 27.9% of all high-education enrollment nationally, according to a 2017 Digital Learning Compass survey. 

The survey found 41.8% of Iowa’s undergraduate and graduate students, or nearly 115,000 students, enrolled in at least one distance-learning course that year. 

At the three public universities, over 37,000 students participated in at least one online class in fall 2018. From 2014-2018, Regent institutions saw a 46.5% increase in online programs. 

The technology existed beforehand, but many professors never taught an online class — until Covid-19.

President of ISU’s Faculty Senate Jonathan Sturm, who teaches music history, said he avoided working with some technologies because he thought they didn’t add to his course. Now the software is necessary; he felt behind the curve. His first quiz accidentally gave away an answer to the students, Sturm said. 

His wife, Julie Sturm, an Iowa State professor of music theory, takes extra steps when grading assignments sent as a PDF since the format isn’t compatible with her computer’s software. 

What seem like minor technical issues have multiplied Julie Sturm’s daily workload threefold –– sometimes extending her grading process to 15 hours in a day, her husband said. 

Does distance learning work?

Past studies on distance learning’s effectiveness show mixed results.

A 2015 Wright State University study found the grades of online learners to be higher – contradicting several past studies. 

On the other hand, a 2017 Brookings Institution study found online students do substantially worse in future courses compared to in-person class students. Online education may contribute to the socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, according to a George Mason University 2019 study. 

Many professors experiencing online learning during the pandemic say it will never fully replace the traditional class setting. 

Technology lets teaching continue

Though the 2017 study ended with negative results for online learning, the researchers concluded online learning’s flexibility and affordability serve a purpose in higher education. With this technology, students will still earn degrees, even during a pandemic. 

A century ago, the opportunity to learn halted for many during the Spanish Flu. During that pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, schools closed for weeks without an option for distance learning.

Iowa State Faculty Senate Resolution 19-19 states while students must take responsibility for their own education, faculty must ensure, despite new challenges posed by COVID-19, a world-class education is still available. 

“As a senate we committed to continuing this education of our students towards their graduation from college and not compromising their time to a degree as well as we can make possibly happen with the technology,” Sturm said. “So there’ll be some changes, you know, some faculty will have to decrease their expectations. Things may happen a little more slowly.”

National news outlets reported universities are preparing to potentially continue the online model into 2021. 

Dimitrova said lasting effects could come. The benefits of flexibility, cost-effectiveness and reduced environmental impact could lead to more work-from-home in and outside of higher education post-coronavirus, Dimitrova said.

“I think this pandemic is shifting the paradigm. I think maybe conducting these classes online in media, (or) some mixture of online moving forward would better prepare students for a workplace,” Dimitrova said. “I’m sure many employers would prefer to have people work from home.”

‘There’s pros and cons. Not very many pros’

Adapting some classes to online is easier than others. 

STEM classes moved from hands-on lab time to online simulation software. Technical difficulties stunt discussion-heavy courses. 

After work-life and home-life collided, Iowa State University photojournalism professor Diane Bugeja juggles the needs of her students and parenting her son with special needs. Bugeja is teaching from home as a result of the coronavirus closing campuses in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Diane Bugeja

Iowa State Associate Teaching Professor Diane Bugeja said the hands-on courses like her photojournalism course is not as effective from behind a screen.

Even her final project –– a slideshow of 25 of their best photos on any given topic with an audio interview playing over the top –– would not be feasible. 

With directions from medical professionals to remain six feet apart – preferably more – Bugeja knew she could not ask her students to stick a microphone in front of someone’s face.  

Instead, students will be using their visual eye to capture their experiences in isolation.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of different stories. I think that we all assume that we’re all cooped up in our house and we’re all going to be the same. I don’t think so,” Bugeja said. “This kind of worked out one way. I think it’s really important that students go to this place that they need to go to sort out this experience.”

Zack Higgs, 21, a senior in electrical engineering at Iowa State, is experiencing these adjustments as a student and a teaching assistant. For STEM students, hands-on labs now are simulated online.

Higgs said it is an opportunity to learn new software simulating their experiment –– though he still feels he’s missing out. 

“It stinks because I like to be in the lab and you get to wear lab coats. You feel all fancy and stuff, it stinks in the fact that you can’t actually do that anymore, but you still have to learn about it and still continue it. So there’s pros and cons. Not very many pros, but yeah, we get to see a different aspect.”

When homelife and worklife collide

To mitigate screen fatigue, a daily walk is necessary, Bugeja said. Tuesday and Thursday, she spends her entire morning in front of a screen for two back-to-back two-hour classes. 

Bugeja said the collision of home and work worklife led to nonstop work. She said she felt behind in her grading. 

“This is a part-time job, mind you,” Bugeja said. 

On top of her two classes at Iowa State and freelancing, Bugeja has a full-time job at home taking care of her son with special needs. She said though her 17-year-old is high functioning, the shock to his schedule is detrimental to his well-being.

K-12 schools in Iowa closed their doors for the remainder of the year leading to the roles of parent and working professional to intermingle physically and mentally.

“The biggest problem, of course, is that everything in the state has been shuttered. So all social and child services, daycares, schools are all shuttered as we try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Sturm said “And if (professors) have a 3-year-old or a 5-year-old or something along that age, even older, these children are often very demanding of their time because their parents are home.”

Some professors were nervous about the shift to distance learning, but University of Iowa School of Law professor Joseph Yockey said as the son of a pulmonologist he was relieved. Yockey said he was worried universities wouldn’t move fast enough to help mitigate the fast-moving coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Joseph Yockey

University of Iowa College of Law professor Joseph Yockey, whose 8-year-old daughter practiced violin in the other room at the time of a phone interview, said he was relieved when he heard campuses were moving to distance learning. 

Despite the difficulties, Yockey said as the son of a pulmonologist, he feared the further spread of the virus universities could cause if classes continued to meet. 

“My fear at the outset was that we, I say we, in terms of initially the University of Iowa, but just colleges and law schools and universities around the country would be too slow because I think there’s, it’s such a big shift,” Yockey said. “No one wants to, I think, do something that they think is going to cause a lot of disruptions of students’ lives.”

Regent professors said their administrations are offering support, but people at every level are stretched thin. 

“The bottom line is when you teach you don’t have any flexibility,” Bugeja said. “You have to show up.”

‘I’ll never turn down an invitation to get coffee’

One part of education lost during distance learning is the sense of community.

Yockey said his discussion-heavy seminar adjusted well to the online format, but what students are missing out on are the 15 minutes before and after class when students often ask for one-on-one clarifications. 

“It’s harder to have the sort of spur-of-the-moment hallway conversations that I think are a big part at least, we’re a smaller college,” Yockey said. “I really miss just bumping into people in the cafeteria.”

For now, professors look forward to the next time they can stand in front of a class or grab a coffee. 

“’I’ll never turn down an invitation to get coffee with someone because I feel like I’m too busy,” Yockey said, referencing a tweet. “You don’t have those social interactions that I took for granted.”

Danielle Gehr is a senior at Iowa State University, studying journalism. Gehr is the summer reporting intern for IowaWatch.

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