Faculty show their creativity to teach online

Steve Butler working from his home office

Mathematics associate professor Steve Butler uses his home office to conduct online instruction to his students. Photos by Christopher Gannon.

Steve Butler's "flailing arms," as he calls them, are now contained within the four borders of his YouTube videos.

This week marks the beginning of virtual instruction for the remainder of the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Butler, associate professor and Barbara J. Janson Professor of mathematics, has moved his coursework online -- as have more than 6,000 other courses at Iowa State.

As of Monday night, 100% of all online learning-appropriate courses had been migrated online through Canvas, video conferencing and other measures, said Sara Marcketti, director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT).

While the situations are different, Marcketti is thankful that CELT had a foundation of resources and plans for online instruction in January 2019, when a polar vortex forced the cancellation of ISU classes for three days.

In the past two weeks, a CELT Response Team was established. Instructional designers across campus volunteered to staff a CELT call center to help faculty with their move online. Instructors and students can also call Canvas support teams 24/7 with questions about the online instruction platform.

"There is always someone to help you," Marcketti said.

Keep it simple

In spring 2017, one of Butler's graduate students was one class away from graduating when she got a job in Minnesota. Butler sprang to action, recording lectures that helped her finish her degree remotely.

What started as a one-time accommodation for a student turned into a teaching practice he's continued ever since. As of today, Butler has uploaded more than 400 videos to his YouTube channel: lectures, problem examples, exam reviews and more. To kick off the rest of spring 2020 online, he posted a video encouraging his students to stay in touch.

"It definitely makes you teach in a different way," Butler said. "In class, I'm much more energetic, moving around, being very dramatic, flailing my arms about wildly. When I'm recording my lectures, I know I have to be a bit more subdued. I can't really make my arm motions translate."

While the shift online isn't without stumbling blocks, Butler says the key is to keep it simple and not try to reinvent an entire course. Butler expects he'll record about eight hours of course material a week for the rest of this semester.

His relatively smooth migration online is also thanks to work the mathematics department did a few years ago, when the department coordinated its calculus classes so that they progress and function as one large cohesive class during the semester. Because of this, they didn’t have to move a dozen variations of calculus classes online this week; they essentially only had to move one.

"For the last two years I've been pouring my heart and soul into making calculus function very smoothly and efficiently and, well, it paid off," he said.

The migration online is more difficult for other subjects, such as art and design.

Raluca Iancu shows the 3D-printed mini press created for her pri

Assistant professor Raluca Iancu created miniature printing presses for her printmaking studio students to use at home for online instruction.

Maintaining a sense of community 

When Raluca Iancu, assistant professor of art and visual culture, was advised to come up with a contingency plan in the event that Iowa State would move classes online, she started brainstorming. Her printmaking class this spring focuses on intaglio printmaking, a process that requires a great deal of pressure that cannot be applied by hand.

She turned to the Open Press Project, which provides open-source plans to anyone with a 3D printer to make their own small printing press.

Iancu headed to the College of Design's Output Center with Joe Bovenmyer, studio support coordinator; and Jeremy Thurlby, model shop manager, to 3D-print small printing presses for each of her students. Before they left for spring break and online instruction, Iancu handed out the small presses and mailed one to a student who had already left the state.

This week, she's using Canvas and video conferencing to stay in touch with her students, asking them to share photos of their work and at-home studio space to not only teach and advise, but to retain a sense of camaraderie.

"With printmaking in particular, because the students are all using the same equipment in the studio, they have a unique sense of community, much like in ceramics," she said. "There’s a tightknit studio culture that, for them to be separated all of a sudden, it's quite a different environment. I've been thinking about how to re-create some of those elements online and how to maintain our sense of community. It is particularly difficult to adapt hands-on experiential studio courses into online delivery models."

Marcketti recognizes that online instruction cannot fully replicate an in-person learning environment, but she has been encouraged by the amount of creativity, innovation and collaboration that ISU faculty have demonstrated during this quick transition.

"Departments have been incredible sharing resources online, CyBoxes filled with teaching ideas," Marcketti said. "It's a nice, unintended consequence that people are really talking about teaching and how to do it effectively."

The latest campus impact of COVID-19

The unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic evolves rapidly. Campuswide communication and regularly updated FAQs -- including one specifically for employees -- are available on the campus safety page. Each week as needed, Inside Iowa State will recap how coronavirus is affecting the university and share relevant resources for employees. On March 26, here is what Iowa State faculty and staff should know:


In an enormous effort by faculty, information technology services (ITS) and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) over the course of two weeks, about 6,100 in-person course sections were converted to online delivery for the virtual instruction period that began March 23. Virtual classes will continue through the end of the spring semester. Full-summer and summer session I courses also will be taught online. Undergraduates will be given the choice to take any course that shifted online mid-semester on a pass/not pass basis, with full credit toward degree and program requirements.

Remote work

CELT and ITS offer numerous resources on remote working and instruction. Consult CELT's list of support options by college and technology type. To request tech support from the Solution Center, complete an incident form online, send an email to solution@iastate.edu or leave a voicemail at 515-294-4000. ITS is holding regular online tutorials on Webex, ISU's videoconferencing software, including sessions Thursday, March 26 (1:10-2 p.m.) and Friday, March 27 (11 a.m.-noon). On March 23, the first day of virtual instruction, more than 13,500 users participated in more than 3,000 ISU Webex meetings.


In a March 22 campus message, Wintersteen directed members of the Iowa State community to self-isolate for 14 days after traveling outside of Iowa. To request an exception, email covid-19@iastate.edu or call 515-294-4428. All study abroad programs that start before Aug. 15 have been canceled.

Campus services

With all university events canceled or moved online and employees working remotely if possible, most public and academic buildings are closed. This has prompted some changes to how mail and packages are delivered. ISU Dining is operating nine campus locations during limited hours for carryout service or retail sales. The university human resources service center and benefits office are open only for appointments. Transportation services remains open, as does ISU Printing Services, though building access is restricted. 

Employee feedback

Senior leaders urge employees to participate in a survey asking Iowa State faculty and staff about the university's response to the pandemic. The deadline is 10 p.m., March 27. President Wendy Wintersteen and other senior leaders will hold a virtual town hall meeting March 30 (9-10 a.m.) to share updates, address issues raised in the employee survey and take questions.

Hiring and promotion

Only critical job vacancies should be filled for the duration of the semester, and searches for tenured and tenure-track faculty positions are postponed until in-person interviews are possible. The faculty promotion and tenure process will proceed as planned, but all requests for a one-year tenure clock extension will be approved if faculty had work disrupted by the coronavirus emergency. 

Status of spread

As of March 25, two of the 145 cases of COVID-19 detected by testing in Iowa were in Story County, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). See the state's coronavirus website for updated information on confirmed cases and hospitalizations in Iowa. ISU officials are in daily contact with IDPH and Mary Greeley Medical Center and will keep the campus community informed to the fullest extent possible about any cases connected to Iowa State.  

Taking care

"Keep Community, Stay Informed, and Be Well," is a wellness campaign to help students and employees navigate the changes caused by virtual instruction, remote work and social distancing. One element of the campaign is an employee action plan work teams can use to collaborate on strategies for maintaining well-being. To assist struggling students, consider giving to the Cyclone Strong Fund that will provide needed emergency grants.

Instructors use student survey to guide online transition

Remind students

The Academic Success Center is still providing services to students. Visit the website for more information and learn more about offerings through a video.

Adapting courses for virtual instruction means plenty of change for instructors and significant adjustment for students.

To limit the stress of shifting classes online, Megan Myers, assistant professor in world languages and cultures, sent students an electronic survey to get their feedback and better understand their online capabilities.

"I wanted immediate student input on what they envisioned this course to look like online and what they thought would be most beneficial," she said.

The survey

Myers worked quickly to develop a survey when the announcement was made March 11 that online instruction would begin for a minimum of two weeks after spring break. She asked several multiple choice questions to gauge interest on a variety of topics.

One of the biggest was whether students preferred instruction delivered synchronously or asynchronously – real time or not. She also asked for preferred platforms for virtual office hours and group discussions.

"We promote asynchronous instruction because of internet bandwidth and the fact that not every student is going to have great internet access," Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CELT) program coordinator Laura Bestler said. "This allows students to be able to learn on their own time."

Myers sent the survey to 55 students and had a 70% reply rate within three days, allowing for discussion of responses before students left for spring break.

"We talked about any concerns and issues they may have had," Myers said. "Some of them just said, 'Thank you for asking for our input.'"

Myers built her courses using the top two responses whenever possible.

More than instruction

A survey available to instructors in Canvas can be distributed to students to help answer technical questions about the switch, and check on the well-being of those in their courses.

"I think the biggest thing is just knowing how our students are doing," Bestler said. "This gives us an idea of where they are at and what they have access to in order to be successful for the remainder of the semester."

Part of the survey focuses on housing accommodations and access to food.

"Those people taking care of a family, going to school and trying to figure it all out are some of the ones we hope reach out to us so we can help them navigate how best to succeed," Bestler said.

Students seeking help can email the office of student assistance while student accessibility services is handling accommodation questions.

Making the switch

Myers teaches Spanish 101 and 102 online during the summer semester, but this is the first time she has converted courses designed to be in-person to virtual instruction.

"I teach language courses, which I think face a different challenge," she said.

Myers said keeping things simple and having good communication are most important.

"The key is to keep it streamlined and accessible to everyone," Myers said. "Try to have really clear objectives and focus on fewer things than you might in a normal class to be really successful in those things you can accomplish."

Co-creating courses is something Myers does in her in-person classes, and it is an aspect she continues now that online instruction will last the remainder of spring semester and for full summer courses.

CELT has a guide for instructors based on the rule of 2's, which helps focus key online transition topics:

  • Two guiding principles for course redesign and instruction
  • Two tools to support your teaching
  • Two pieces of content students will understand after completing the course
  • Two skills students will gain
  • Two ways students can participate

Better prepared

Bestler believes the work of the past few weeks will serve the campus community beyond a single semester or two.

"This can all be used in future semesters," she said. "Anything faculty do right now can inform their pedagogical practice going forward."

Provost addresses tenure clock extensions, grading options

In a March 20 memo, senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert shared temporary policies on instruction and faculty advancement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The policies, adopted with input from Faculty Senate, address tenure clock extensions and a pass/not pass option for undergraduate courses.

For faculty on the tenure track, a one-year tenure clock extension will be granted to those who requests one because their work has been impacted by COVID-19.

Undergraduate courses affected by the transition to virtual instruction can opt for pass/not pass grading. The policy applies only to courses during the spring semester that were intended to be in-person. Any course taken using pass/not pass counts toward curricular, major, academic progress and graduation requirements, but will not be factored into a student's grade point average.

Students must choose the pass/not pass option by submitting a form to their academic adviser or the registrar’s office May 13-19. If no form is submitted the letter grade will be assigned. To assist students in making a decision, the deadline to drop a course has been extended to April 3.

The Graduate College still is considering its grading options for spring classes, but the deadline to add second-half semester courses has been extended to March 27. Preliminary or final oral examinations may be done remotely or in-person with appropriate social distancing.

Wickert also allowed faculty to change course syllabi, assignments and assessments for all courses switching to virtual instruction.

An FAQ is available on the temporary policy offering a pass/not pass option.


Procurement services can assist researchers who have expenses related to trip cancellations forced by COVID-19. Researchers should consult to the COVID-19 and research website for the most up-to-date information on sponsored funding and changes in agency policy.

Parks Library

Parks Library is one of several buildings closed to the public on campus, but library staff are offering doorside pickup. Materials may be requested either from interlibrary loan or pick from shelf services and obtained weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Extended deadlines

Deadlines for several actions have been extended:

  • The post-tenure case review is June 1.
  • The deadline to submit decisions on third-year reviews is June 1.
  • The deadline to submit position responsibility statement updates in Workday is Aug. 1.
  • The deadline for submitting final faculty evaluation ratings for 2019 is postponed indefinitely.

On schedule

  • The promotion and tenure process recommendations have been submitted to the state Board of Regents with approval expected at its April 1 meeting.
  • Term faculty advancement cases are under review with final decisions by April 15.
  • University-level award winners will be notified by May 15.

Closed buildings alter delivery for mail, packages

An outcome of instruction migrating online and employees working remotely is that many campus buildings have closed for security reasons, which in turn has changed some procedures for receiving mail and packages at work.

Two key changes are:

  • Central receiving, in normal times the clearinghouse for truck freight coming to Iowa State, also became the drop station for all incoming packages from shipping vendors such as FedEx, UPS and DHL. Central receiving staff log all of these parcels on a new tracking tool and coordinate with building supervisors to deliver them to campus buildings.
  • Postal and parcel services (PPS) staff, who deliver campus mail and U.S. Postal Service mail and packages, now have access to all campus buildings equipped with kecard entry. Occupants of locked buildings without key card entry need to make arrangements to pick up their campus mail in the General Services Building.

The procedures for sending mail and packages through PPS are similar. If your building has key card entry, leave outgoing mail and packages (U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc.) in your building's designated mail room for pickup by a PPS staff member. PPS manager Bob Tott said staff are keeping their normal routes and schedules as much as possible.

If your building is locked and without keycard entry, bring your outgoing mail and packages to PPS in the General Services Building. Out of concern and courtesy for the health of PPS staff, Tott asked employees with mail duties to call 294-4283 to make arrangements for drop-offs or pickups.

More about your package

Logistics and support services director Jared Hohanshelt said same-day delivery to campus buildings is the goal for most packages. When packages arrive via an express service or are labeled with time- or temperature-sensitive requirements, they are on a delivery truck within 30 minutes.

"We're trying to create efficiency in a new process for our team and for building supervisors," Hohanshelt said. "It's an evolving process while we get used to the higher volume of packages."

Some buildings, due to location and the content of the packages, will continue to receive direct deliveries from the private shipping vendors. That list also is developing, but includes the College of Veterinary Medicine, Ames Laboratory facilities, Chemistry Stores in Gilman Hall, Printing and Publications Building, and the Memorial Union.

Hohanshelt discourages package recipients from picking up their parcel at the central receiving facility in east Ames because that reduces the efficiency of the operation. But employees who feel the content of their package is at risk should use the online tracking tool to confirm it arrived at central receiving and then call 294-1804 to schedule a pickup (8 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday). If the package has been labeled correctly, there's a good chance it's already on a truck headed for campus, he noted.

Faculty promotions, Hilton and diagnostic lab proposals are on regents' April 1 agenda

Schematic drawing of new Veterinary Diagnostic Lab

Architect's sketch of the proposed Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the Vet Med campus. Image provided.

Final approval of promotion or tenure for 98 Iowa State faculty is scheduled during the state Board of Regents' April 1 virtual meeting. The agenda is on the board's website, and the meeting can be viewed there as well.

Ninety-eight requests for promotion or tenure represents a 40% increase over last spring's 70 P&T requests. The table (below) breaks down the total by gender and promotion type. If approved, the promotions take effect for the 2020-21 academic year. 

2020-21 Promotion and tenure requests





Promotion with tenure




Promotion (already have tenure)




Tenure without promotion








Large building projects

Iowa State leaders will present budgets and schematic designs to the board for a new two-story, 72,000-square foot Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory ($75 million) and outward expansion of the north and south concourses at Hilton Coliseum ($22 million). As proposed, the testing lab facility would be paid for with $63.5 million in state funds, $7.5 million in university funds and $4 million in private gifts. Construction would begin this fall. Improvements at Hilton would be covered with athletics department operating funds and private gifts. The work would begin next spring.

Pay grades, salary policy

The board will be asked to approve the compensation structure in Iowa State's new classification/compensation system for professional and scientific employees. Implementation is underway for the new system and currently targeted to wrap up in late May. Its 15 grades use a fanned approach to grade widths, with lower grades being narrower and higher grades becoming progressively wider to account for greater market variability in higher-level jobs.

As they do each spring, representatives of non-unionized employee groups at Iowa's three regent universities will present comments to board members before they set (at the June meeting) salary policies for the fiscal year that begins July. 1. Iowa State employees will represent the Faculty Senate and Professional and Scientific Council.

At its April meeting, the regents also receive annual reports on: faculty tenure, diversity and competition with private enterprise.

Other ISU items

Iowa State also will seek board permission to:

Search, hiring changes are in effect until May

Searches to fill noncritical job vacancies should be postponed until the end of spring semester, and critical-need vacancies will require approval from the appropriate senior vice president or president -- or delegate -- before they can be posted. As Iowa State adjusts its operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, interim vice president for university human resources Kristi Darr shared new recruiting guidelines in a March 24 memo to managers. She defined "critical" as necessary for essential day-to-day functions of the university.

"Iowa State University remains committed to prioritizing the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and visitors," Darr wrote.

For positions that have been posted, Darr said staff recruiting specialists (for non-faculty positions) and HR coordinators (for faculty positions) will contact hiring managers to discuss options. Those could be:

  • Extend application dates through the end of spring semester.
  • Close the posting now and repost it after the end of spring semester.

"Consult with your HR delivery team if you need assistance in determining whether the search should be extended, or if you need assistance developing a workforce contingency plan within your area," Darr wrote.

In light of university restrictions on both nonessential travel and in-person meetings, Darr said in-person job interviews also must be postponed until the semester has ended. Again, senior VP or presidential approval is needed for an exception. Darr said phone or Webex video interviews may occur and reminded interview teams to keep their interviews consistent among the candidates, regardless of the format.

In a follow-up memo to the academic division, senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert provided further guidelines for faculty and postdoc searches:

  • Interviews for tenured or tenure-track faculty positions must be postponed until they can be conducted in person.
  • Virtual interviewing is allowable in searches for postdocs, administrative posts open only to internal candidates and term faculty posts up to one year long that fill critical teaching needs.

Start dates

Darr said search teams should expect delays in the offer/hiring process. She encouraged units to offer hire dates after May 10 whenever possible, and to seek senior VP or president approval for an earlier start date. Units wishing to delay or extend an offer in process should ask their staff recruiting specialist or HR coordinator for help.

In cases where new employees already were scheduled to begin in their new post before the end of the semester, Darr offered this guidance:

  • Talk to new hires about their interest in delaying the start date.
  • If a delay is amenable, adjust but don't suspend the onboarding process.
  • Make sure equipment and necessary resources are available to new employees on their start dates.
  • The federal form I-9 still is required for new employees, though the Department of Homeland Security issued emergency guidelines for remote verification and processing.

Summer graduate assistants

Darr said summer appointments for graduate assistants will be allowed. She noted that appointments may be one- to three-months long, which gives supervisors concerned about COVID-19 impacts some flexibility. Full stipends for the appointment term must be honored even if needs change.

Darr also said hiring for noncritical undergraduate student positions should be delayed until after the end of the semester.

A musical lift

A view of the campanile with blue sky and clouds in the backgrou

Photo by Christopher Gannon.

As university carillonneur and Cownie Professor of Music, Tin-Shi Tam decided the show must go on and is playing her weekday carillon concerts. The setup in the campanile is perfect for maintaining an isolated work environment and certainly not something that can be done from home.

"The carillon concerts are an integral part of our community life at Iowa State. 'Keep the bells ringing' was as important in the past as it is today with these unprecedented circumstances," Tam said.

The 20-minute concerts start at 11:50 a.m., Monday-Friday, and will continue for the remainder of the semester. Tam said the live webcasts aren't yet back online because the network service isn't working in the campanile. The carilllon website includes an email form for submitting song requests. 

Tam, who said the daily task helps maintain her routine, hopes the weekday concerts provide a bright spot of normalcy for people within earshot.

"I never considered not playing the carillon concerts," Tam said. "I hope the music helps to lift people's spirits and provide a break in the midst of uncertainty."