Fall 2020: An academic experience like no other

While classes began on August 17, Iowa State University’s faculty and staff were planning for this day for several months. The re-design of 7,318 classes was coordinated by the Academic Continuity Working Group, led by Associate Provost for Academic Program Ann Marie VanDerZanden, in collaboration across the university and with Iowa State’s Faculty Senate to review policy changes and key decisions related to the fall semester.

Thousands more worked behind the scenes to make the fall semester a reality:

  • Faculty who created both in-person and virtual versions of many courses, based on consistent standards and using a standard template in Canvas, the university’s digital learning management system
  • Facilities professionals who established cleaning regimens for academic facilities, placed signage, and modified classrooms to accommodate reduced capacity
  • Academic advisers and student support professionals who worked with students to achieve their goals for class schedules and delivery mode
  • Staff in the Thielen Student Health Center who are helping to maintain students’ physical and mental health through the pandemic

Course delivery by the numbers
Overall, 44% of Iowa State’s fall courses have an in-person component, including 28% of courses with fully face-to-face instruction and another 16% taught in a hybrid format that features a combination of face-to-face and virtual instruction.

An additional 22% of classes will be taught in individually arranged formats. These courses represent research projects, internships, and independent study where students work closely with faculty;  are typically offered at the advanced undergraduate and graduate levels;  and have a strong individual component.

Slightly more than a third of courses, 34%, will be taught virtually.  Many of these courses contain at least 1-hour of active faculty-student interaction per credit hour each week, including virtual small group discussions, more frequent faculty feedback, virtual office hours, discussion boards, and other opportunities for faculty-student interaction. 

“Our faculty have done something that’s never been done before,” said Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert.  “Students have the opportunity to – safely – learn from and interact with faculty who are leaders in their fields, and who will help students develop a mix of practical and critical thinking skills that prepare them for successful lives and careers.” 

Prioritizing experiential learning
Iowa State’s academic colleges and departments prioritized experiential learning courses, particularly in agriculture, engineering, design, science, and veterinary medicine:

  • 82% of laboratory sections (1,056 of 1,291) are offered face-to-face, or with in-person components.
  • 91% of studio sections are offered face-to-face or with in-person components through hybrid or arranged course offerings.
  • 95% of experiential course sections are being offered face-to-face or with in-person components through hybrid- or arranged course offerings.

“Hands-on, practical, learning-by-doing is the hallmark of Iowa State University,” Wickert added. “And students continue to have the opportunity this fall to participate in learning communities, the University Honors program, internships, and undergraduate research.”

Flexibility for students
The fall’s mix of courses offers students unprecedented flexibility in completing their academic work and making progress toward their degrees. The flexibility is appreciated by students with underlying health conditions, who can choose to take all of their classes virtually; as well as international students who could not make it to campus due to COVID-19 or visa restrictions.

“Each student’s circumstances are different,” said VanDerZanden. “Throughout our planning, we wanted to make sure we accommodated students wherever they are academically, and whatever their comfort level for returning to campus may be.”

High-quality virtual instruction
While the transition to virtual instruction in the spring was completed on an emergency basis as the pandemic was just beginning, Iowa State’s faculty and academic leaders were able to take a more deliberate approach when preparing for fall and summer instruction.

Iowa State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning trained hundreds of faculty in virtual course design, and to ensure virtual courses meet standards established by the national organization Quality Matters. In addition, the university complies with accreditation standards established by the Higher Learning Commission, and many specific academic programs meet additional accreditation standards in their respective disciplines.