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Iowa Universities Patch Holes in Large Online Transition

Public universities in the state of Iowa are filling in the gaps, and as such, they have now largely transitioned to operating online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Vanessa Miller, The Gazette / November 16, 2020
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(TNS) — Iowa's public universities made the monumental shift last spring to predominantly virtual and hybrid learning impressively, but Board of Regents auditors have identified some holes — including one that raised the prospect of cheating on exams had it not been addressed.

Many University of Iowa instructors use an exam-proctoring software called Proctorio to administer tests. A newly released board audit found some, though, hadn't been consistently reviewing alerts from the testing system, "increasing the risk that academic misconduct may go undetected."

Proctorio — which validates student identities and records entire exam sessions over student webcams — uses artificial intelligence to flag potential instances of academic misconduct, alerting instructors if students look away from their computer; talk to someone else in the room; or present a photo ID that doesn't look like the person registered to take the test.

Although the UI Distance and Online Education department had offered to review Proctorio alerts for the faculty, internal auditors assessing fall 2019 online courses found 73 percent of instructors had declined the help. Of those courses for which instructors rejected assistance, only 14 percent of alerts were reviewed, according to the regents audit. For the other 27 percent that tasked Distance and Online Education with reviewing alerts, more than 90 percent were.

"A process should be implemented which holds instructors accountable when these alerts are not reviewed appropriately," according to the audit.

UI managers moved to address that lapse, now making departmental review of testing alerts the default mode for instructors using Proctorio.

The audit also addressed concerns over the quality of online courses available through the UI, noting some — but not all — were crafted or vetted using departmental best practices.

Auditors suggested Distance and Online Education go through the university's virtual courses to mark those meeting its standards.

UI management acknowledging that's preferable, but asserted immediate concerns presented by the ongoing pandemic that's pushed vast numbers of undergraduate classes online is the top priority.

The department did highlight a number of steps underway aimed at revising and reinvigorating virtual courses, including more faculty training, professional school licensure requirements and ongoing conversations.

"Before the COVID-19 pandemic, (Distance and Online Education) hoped to start this work in the summer of 2020," according to the audit. "Because of the global pandemic, DOE now anticipates beginning this conversation in the spring of 2021."

ISU ONLINE SUPPORTS

A separate audit of Iowa State University's technology supporting online academics found the ISU website doesn't include the online and hybrid program information "in a way that makes it easy for prospective students and the general public to find."

"Prospective students may not enroll in programs if they cannot easily locate the relevant information on the university website," the board audit reported.

For instance, a review of 85 ISU online and hybrid academic programs that were referenced on "at least one web page on the ISU website" found 15 did not have functioning links to the relevant program and department web pages. The board audit found dozens of other examples of incomplete or lacking listings of online offerings.

ISU managers reported they would remind distance education coordinators to make sure all online and hybrid program information is complete and easy to locate online.

TELEHEALTH

In looking at the health care side of the virtual migration, regents undertook an internal audit of UI's telemedicine operation — a mode of delivery involving virtual or phone visits instead of traditional in-person appointments.

For starters, auditors noted the service has "exploded" amid COVID-19 concerns and UI Health Care-imposed precautions.

From August 2019 to February, UIHC performed fewer than 1,000 telemedicine appointments, according to the audit. Then, in March alone, it conducted more than 13,400, followed by an April that saw more than 41,500.

Those totals dropped slightly after restrictions eased in the summer, with telehealth visit totals of 26,290 in May and 17,572 in June. Visits hovered around that mark for months after — bumping up to nearly 20,000 in July and back down to about 17,000 in August.

To date, the university has performed 65,661 total telephone and video screenings for UIHC's "influenza-like-illness" clinic for possible COVID-19 patients, or those wondering if they have the virus.

Because the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — at the pandemic's onset — began compensating video visits at the same rate as in-person visits, reimbursing clinic visits conducted over the phone, too, telemedicine became more financially viable and sustainable.

Still, the rushed escalation meant mixed use of video platforms, "which increases the risk of an inconsistent patient experience," the audit found. It also left providers and patients with limited technical support, "resulting in video visits being shifted to telephone when technology does not work appropriately."

"The tremendous growth of telemedicine services, delivered in locations across the enterprise, has outgrown the resources available to provide immediate support," according to UIHC's management response, which committed to enacting improvements by January.

(c)2020 The Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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