AMES, Iowa — 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 at Iowa State University 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.
Teaching online: 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.
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.”