Instructor creativity improves virtual learning this fall

When fall classes begin Aug. 17, virtual instruction will not be the same as what students experienced during the spring semester. Faculty and staff have taken strides to provide students with more interaction and support -- hallmarks of an Iowa State education.

"I hope they notice three things," director for academic quality and undergraduate education Shawn Boyne said. "Their instructors are all using Canvas, and using it more effectively. The learning is more interesting. Finally, they will have seamless interaction with the people they need to meet to get academic support on campus."

Guidelines drafted for summer courses increased the minimum amount of active faculty-student interaction, and those have been updated for fall.

The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) worked with the provost's office to provide faculty with ways to design courses and engage students in the online environment. CELT has conducted nearly 400 departmental trainings since May 8 in preparation for the new academic year, Boyne said.

Student support

Course design and engagement are two key areas emphasized for the fall term, with significant resources also added for academic support. EAB Navigate allows students to easily schedule a virtual appointment with their adviser. Students access it through the "Student" tab in AccessPlus, while faculty and staff can find it in Okta.

"If an adviser's office is not large enough to provide the adequate physical distancing, the students or faculty can request a virtual appointment," Boyne said.

The Academic Success Center also will offer supplemental instruction and small group tutoring in a synchronous online format.

Inside caught up with a few faculty who found ways to bolster their students' fall experiences.

A new way to travel to Central America

Lee Burras, Morrill Professor in agronomy, prefers to teach with a whiteboard and marker. It’s the best way to get discussion going, and students favor his style to PowerPoint presentations, he’s found. When the coronavirus put the kibosh on two study-abroad trips, this old-school teacher thought outside-the-box to provide his students a unique opportunity.

Burras views travel and learning directly from those living in other countries as key to the Iowa State experience, sending him to Costa Rica 18 times and Uruguay three times. With trips not possible this fall, Burras is bringing experts to his two study abroad programs.

"We need to offer something now more than ever," said Burras. "The last thing I want is for Iowa State students to miss the opportunity to have meaningful experiences internationally."

Burras built a Canvas course that allows his hosts in the two countries to record themselves experiencing many of the things students would do. They will be delivered asynchronously 10 times during the semester to give students the chance to discuss a variety of topics.

Burras also has a synchronous element where his hosts -- a coffee farmer in Costa Rica and a professor in Uruguay -- will talk to the classes once a week.

Back in the lab

Getting students into the lab is one of the biggest goals of the fall semester, and something assistant teaching professor in genetics, development and cell biology Carly Manz helped work on this summer. Manz will teach hybrid anatomy and biology labs this fall.

Last spring, the biology lab moved lecture videos and assignments online, but dissections were not possible. Constructing a safer lab space brought together instructors from biology, chemistry, physics and geology to share ideas and get feedback from environmental health and safety staff.

"We really want to prioritize students being able to do dissections," Manz said. "We will have half the class at a time meeting in-person in the lab rooms and getting those experiences."

Safety of students and instructors is key. Customized plexiglass barriers were ordered with slots for a dissection tray. This allows two students -- one on each side of a barrier -- to work together. 

"We hear from students that labs are where they learn the most," Manz said. "To be able to do things hands-on and see things in three dimensions is where they really cement their learning." 

Walk this way

Associate professor of regional planning Carlton Basmajian is moving the History of City Planning in the U.S. online for the first time. He has recorded lectures for his class of more than 100 undergraduate students, but he wanted to apply what they are learning in the course to Ames.

"I want to make this as rich of an online experience as I can," Basmajian said. "I am recording a series of walking tours of Ames. I am using the physical infrastructure of Ames as a way to show locally the same concepts I talk about in the lecture."

He discusses the history of the places around the city, connecting significant themes from lectures.

Basmajian is shooting the video and editing it into shorter clips to replace the walking tours he used to do with his in-person class a couple of times a semester.

Timing is everything

Last fall, assistant professor in plant pathology and microbiology Nancy Boury developed and taught a course based on predicting the next epidemic. The class -- taught during the second half of the first semester -- is delivered online, but Boury is taking advantage of teaching a subject happening in real time.

"We talk about the generalities, but we apply it to this very specific example of COVID-19," she said.

Boury uses the Studio app in Canvas to embed questions throughout her recorded lectures to make sure students are following the information. She also utilizes the Packback discussion platform to create more interaction in the virtual environment. Boury plans to put students into groups in her online classes to promote discussion and provide a sense of community.

"That will be key in my first-year classes because I want them to get that personal interaction with their peers," she said. "That is one of the more distancing things of online learning. It is about those social connections and engaging with each other."

Instruction with a little grace

The coronavirus has provided unexpected obstacles, but Amy Kaleita is trying to determine the best way to remotely assist her students while receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

"I have stuff going on in my life, no doubt there are students dealing with stuff going on in their lives, so we are all going to have to operate this semester -- and every semester -- with a little grace," the agricultural and biosystems engineering professor said.

Last spring, Kaleita taught a computer programming and problem-solving course for engineering students utilizing a hybrid model with lecture videos. But she missed the community when the class met in the computer lab, allowing her to communicate directly and answer questions immediately.

Kaleita began using Webex Training -- which provides features like polling, breakout rooms and collaborative whiteboarding -- to regain some connection, and she continues to look for more touch points.