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UNI profs embrace internet teaching

UNI profs embrace internet teaching

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

CEDAR FALLS – After an unexpected jolt in the spring semester, University of Northern Iowa educators have made a smooth transition into the world of online instruction.

Many were tasked with suddenly shifting from classroom to online courses after the rapid spread of coronavirus. On March 10, the second day of UNI’s spring break, the Board of Regents called for the state’s universities to move as quickly as possible to virtual instruction as the U.S. braced for the virus’ impact.

Classes at the college hardly skipped a beat thanks to the quick turnaround by instructors, many of whom spent spring break scrambling to reconfigure on-campus courses into a user-friendly online format.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been more impressed with the people I work with,” said Ryan McGeough, Ph.D., Cedar Falls native and head of the communications department at UNI. “Students are getting what we promised — a high quality education — and we recognize that most of these students didn’t sign up for online classes.”

It took about a week for students to acclimate to the change, he said. With about 550 students enrolled in communications courses this semester, McGeough said there were “a number of students” who did not immediately return once school resumed online.

Many have returned, he said, but about 5% — or nearly one in every class — have not.

Some students opting out are non-traditional and work in health care, McGeough said. Others are taking on extra responsibilities with their families or adjusting to a change in work schedule.

“It’s important to be kind and understanding that folks are dealing with a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Restricted internet access also affects students’ abilities to participate. Instructors are working with individual students who have connectivity issues so they are able to continue the class, McGeough said.

Zoom Video Communications, a remote conferencing service, has become increasingly popular since the shutdown of most public schools and businesses. Teachers and students use Zoom to see each other and interact as a group by speaking or texting.

Slack, an instant messaging platform by Slack Technologies, involves messaging in open forums called channels and takes up less bandwidth than Zoom. Other educators prefer asynchronous courses, McGeough said, where they upload materials online, and students complete assignments on their own time each week.

The road has been bumpy for many instructors, who also are dealing with the pandemic at home.

McGeough and his wife, Danielle McGeough, Ph.D., also an associate communications professor at UNI, have two young children, 4 and 2, at home. Their day care and preschools closed last month. The pair take turns working and caring for the children, and both begin working each day before the children wake up and continue after they fall asleep for the night.

“It really is challenging,” he said.

Rebecca Kauten, Ph.D., an adjunct geography instructor at UNI, said her experience teaching online classes at Montana State University in Billings from her home in Cedar Falls eased some of the process. She knew she needed to adjust deadlines, exam dates and assignments to accommodate her students’ changing needs.

“My hope is this accommodates those who need longer testing time, as well as students who are jockeying for internet bandwidth as their parents and siblings are either teleworking or also taking classes,” she said.

Kauten also teaches an introduction to sustainability class at the University of Iowa. Last week she changed things up by hosting a guest who conducted a live guided meditation during her online Zoom class.

“Folks seemed to really appreciate having an hour set aside to relax, re-center and ground themselves a bit amongst the chaos and uncertainty.”

Kamyar Enshayan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education hosted a live “teach-in” Thursday on Zoom with two UNI biologists, Michael Walter, Ph.D., virology, and Mark Myers, Ph.D., conservation biology.

The topic was “Biodiversity Conservation Can Prevent and Reduce Future Pandemics.” More than 50 people signed in, including students and community members, to hear the scientists discuss the pandemic and the events leading up to COVID-19.

While Enshayan was thrilled of the success of the teach-in and hopes to host similar webinars in the future, he noted the importance of a traditional, on-campus educational experience. “Online is limited and limiting. It cannot accommodate the vastness of our human senses, and therefore is not ideal.”

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If coronavirus cases continue to increase and UNI classes return to an online-only format, hundreds of international students will be forced to return home at a time when some countries are restricting entry to anyone from the U.S. Students who are unable to return home could face deportation. Some face financial challenges to even get home on such short notice. Ravasio Corrales said flights to her home in Costa Rica can cost between $1,000 and $2,000.

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