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COVID-19 response Online innovation

Meeting students wherever they are

For years, Loyola faculty have taken the lead in virtual learning, expanding the boundaries of what a college course could be

Kiera Hobbs was a veteran nurse looking for a change, for something more. She missed regular patient interactions, having spent the early chunk of her career working closely with the anesthesia team in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Then her mother-in-law developed ovarian cancer, a frightening episode that nonetheless provoked Hobbs’ clinical interest. “I never really saw myself in oncology,” she says. “It’s something that just happened.” 

A decade ago, oncology specialization was a niche field in nursing, but one poised for growth—an aging population, the increasing complexity of cancer care, projected nursing shortages. At the time, very few universities offered dedicated training. Loyola University Chicago jumped at the chance to fill the void. Thanks to a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Loyola’s Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing revitalized its oncology track for graduate nursing, and did so employing a fully online format: courses were designed and delivered in a virtual setting while clinical practicums were performed remotely, wherever that nursing student might live. Hobbs enrolled in 2017. 

“It was a very specialized group of individuals who wanted to get together and share and learn together in a collaborative environment,” recalls Patricia Friend, an associate professor at Niehoff. For the past decade-and-a-half, Friend has stood on the vanguard of online instruction at Loyola, integrating technology into the educational process while directing the school’s oncology tracks. For three years, she served as Hobbs’ advisor and mentor.

“We were really committed to the pedagogy of inclusivity, creating a community of online learners.”

— Patricia Friend, associate professor, Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing

In the mid-aughts, Internet speed was one of Friend’s primary concerns; she insisted that her classes be synchronous as opposed to pre-recorded. “We’re not using dial-ups anymore,” she says. “It used to drop off once every week.” She utilized learning management systems of all shapes and sizes: Adobe Connect, BigBlueButton, now Sakai. (“My god, those early ones were clunky and difficult.”) And she studied the intricacies of online course development—how to facilitate active learning in moderated discussion threads, how to write successful discussion prompts, how to implement best practices in online testing—at a time when few were doing it. 

Hobbs took courses in physiology, pharmacology, and health assessments from her home in the Bluegrass State. “I don’t think I felt isolated,” she says now. “There were quite a bit of videoconferencing, and if there wasn’t a video there was lots of interaction in forums where you would respond to other people’s posts and they’d get back with you in a pretty decent timeframe.” 

As a professor, Friend was organized and communicative. “Oh my god, she was awesome.” Hobbs says. “She made the entire experience for me.” Hobbs, for her part, earned the American Cancer Society’s Graduate Scholarship in Cancer Nursing Practice award in 2020, a highly competitive grant. And she did so entirely remotely, 400 miles from the Health Sciences Campus. 

From the beginning, Niehoff sought to distinguish its offerings from others in the marketplace that felt slapdash or, in the worse cases, exploitative. Friend prosthelytizes for their approach, which is comprehensive yet pliable. That she trains nurses with busy lives from a computer in Maywood, Illinois is a feature, not a bug.


national ranking of Loyola's online bachelor’s program by U.S. News and World Report


Loyola faculty have taken intensive workshops outlining best practices for designing and managing a digital classroom 


Loyola courses were moved online this spring in a matter of days

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In a pre-COVID world, Loyola was home to 50 online programs, some certificates and some full degrees, geared mostly towards graduate students and adult learners. Taken together, online classes made up somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of the University’s full menu. While that may seem modest, there are pockets of excellence in a wide variety of departments across all three campuses. Just this past year, Loyola’s online bachelor’s program—run through Niehoff and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies—was ranked eighth in its category by U.S. News and World Report, with a score of 90/100. A slice of Loyola’s faculty have engaged deeply in this novel teaching approach, in other words, expanding the boundaries of what a comprehensive college course could be. 

Three years before Friend joined the Loyola community, Kayhan Parsi was hired to create an online master’s program in bioethics and health policy for the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics, arguably the first discipline at Loyola to pursue online learning in a robust way. The goal was to enroll experienced physicians and chaplains, professionals in pursuit of supplementary bioethics training who also needed the flexibility to learn at home.

Back in the prehistoric days of 2002, the technology available to Parsi, now the director of the graduate program in bioethics, was crude, especially when it came to videoconferencing.

“To run a really effective online course, you have to be not only a content expert but very proficient in course management. It helps being a little bit compulsive.”

— Kayhan Parsi, Director, Graduate Program in bioethics

Folks at Neiswanger found eager students from all walks of life. Eventually, faculty keen to engage in this form of teaching found their groove, “growing it organically” with new tools and tricks. For the past six years, Parsi has hosted a monthly webinar series called “Loyola Bioethics Live.” This spring, he created a project site in Sakai that allowed students to discuss with one another their own responses to the pandemic. Each semester presents another opportunity for innovation. 

Stacy Neier Beran, a senior Ignatian lecturer at the Quinlan School of Business, doesn’t want her marketing classes to resemble the stereotype of a correspondence course, in any conceivable way. She first ran an online class in 2012, and she’s taught them reliably (in different iterations) since 2016. “There is the opportunity for increased humanity, increased connection when we design the course to allow for a sense of community from the start,” she says. 

Like Parsi, she considers herself “possibly obsessive” about course design. She’s consistent about using the Breakout Rooms feature in Zoom, dedicating at least 45 minutes to simulated roundtable discussions in every three-hour section she leads. She piloted the use of Slack back in 2016, which she’s found effective at “breaking down communications barriers.” And she integrated podcasts into her syllabus long before the format was ubiquitous. Before each term, Neier Beran asks herself a crucial question: “How can we create a more tactile experience?” 

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“There is the opportunity for increased humanity, increased connection when we design the course to allow for a sense of community from the start.”
Stacy Neier Beran, senior Ignatian lecturer, Loyola's Quinlan School of Business

A similar question consumes Peter Jones, interim dean of the Institute for Pastoral Studies (IPS). He’s taught online at Loyola, tucked away in a book-cluttered spare bedroom, for the past seven years. “We have six master’s degrees that we offer, and three of them can be completed entirely online,” he says. “Honestly, most of our students do a little bit of both depending on their schedules and work lives.” 

Jones has a simple operating principle when it comes to online instruction. “I come up with the course content first, and then I make the technology serve the content, not the reverse,” he says. “There’s always a tool, always a way around it.” 

His sessions typically combine a live presentation with a guided conversation. The discussion forums are used to clarify misunderstandings and prompt questions. He’s conscious of the aesthetics of his course sites; pages with “an unpleasant, utilitarian feel” are anathema to the tone Jones tries to set. 

This past semester, a small team of students, faculty, and graduate assistants developed the IPS Community Forum, a project site on Sakai where people can exchange ministry resources and spark conversations about the work they’re doing in their own church or at their own counseling internships. From this effort sprung a daily prayer service, a semi-liturgical virtual gathering at 12:15 p.m. “As a pastoral set of people, we’re interested in connection and openness and in some sense vulnerability,” Jones says. “When you open up to people, even through a screen, they sense and appreciate that.” 

The University’s Office of Online Learning (OOL) and Information Technology Services are valuable hubs of expertise, both for seasoned faculty like Jones and others fresh to online instruction. OOL—which provides guidance on instructional design and offers consultations for faculty and staff—has dramatically increased its offerings in 2020; over 800 faculty have taken intensive workshops outlining best practices for designing and managing a digital classroom, while another 200 have made individual requests for support. (Some schools already have an instructional designer embedded in their particular unit.)

OOL also maintains an academic continuity website chock-full of information, and they’ve made an effort to connect professors with especially skilled online educators in their own departments for mentoring opportunities over Zoom. (John Gurnak, OOL’s director, calls veterans like Parsi and Jones “online learning champions.”) The pedagogy is more important than technology, no doubt. But the tools are growing in their sophistication. And as Parsi notes, “over the years, our technical support has gotten better and better.” 


Loyola University offers its first online programs, with a degree program in Computer Science


The highly successful graduate program in Bioethics launches online, with both a master's degree and certificate program


Loyola boasts a robust course catalog of more than 2,000 classes that can be taken online, all developed before the coronavirus pandemic


total online degree or certificate programs existed at Loyola pre-COVID


additional online offerings were already in preparation to be unveiled in the coming years


schools at Loyola that offer fully-online programs or certificates in areas such as health care, law, pastoral studies, and social work

It goes without saying that online instruction creates obvious—and occasionally intractable—challenges. To be successful studying from home requires organizational and time-management savvy. Students with relatively chaotic lives away from campus may lack easy access to the dedicated space or support—tutoring, counseling, library resources—they need to thrive. Replicating activities like a lab, a dance class, or a clinical practicum, meanwhile, takes extraordinary creativity. Even for faculty members who teach in more straightforward formats, it’s time-intensive to conceive of, develop, and design an online course from scratch, and then establish a vibrant classroom culture when no physical classroom exists. 

“The quality of the community we can build is dependent entirely on the commitment of the people participating, to do the work and to build the community. The technology cannot bear the weight.”

— Peter Jones, interim dean, Institute for Pastoral Studies

When online education runs smoothly, though, the potential advantages are hard to ignore. Most crucially, Loyola can strip away geographic limitations and increase diversity in its student body. One of Jones’ seminars last semester included residents from Alaska, New York, Wisconsin, and Georgia, along with folks in Chicagoland who couldn’t reliably commute to Rogers Park because of conflicting responsibilities. “We’ve had students in Australia, the Philippines, Germany,” he adds. “The possibilities are endless.” 

In one of her courses this spring, Neier Beran piped in an alumni guest speaker from Toronto, someone she’d wanted to bring to campus for ages. During her grad students’ final presentations, she says, “we had people stream from London to Japan. All my students were able to invite their families.” If those same students feel comfortable interacting with their professors over Slack or social media, Parsi thinks the odds they keep in touch after graduation jump considerably. And during a global pandemic, when public health necessitates that Loyola de-densify its campuses (to allow for proper social distancing and hygiene), rigorous online education might literally save lives. 

Even before the coronavirus shutdown in March, Loyola administrators had made preparations to unveil some 30 additional online offerings in the coming years. If nothing else, the collective experience of adjusting to a remote world this spring might accelerate the integration of technology into routine campus business. Ignatian heritage dictates nothing if not the need to embrace the future and push the boundaries of what’s possible, for as many people as can be reached. “I hope this gives all of us more tolerance to do it a bit better,” Neier Beran says. 

Patti Friend typically loves the end of spring term. That’s when her graduating pupils visit Chicago to defend their comprehensive exams and, when they’re successful, walk in Niehoff’s commencement ceremony. For many of them, it’s the first time they meet Friend in the flesh. “But,” Friend says, “we have known each other intimately for years.” 

Our compassionate response

In the unprecedented upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Loyola has responded with care, compassion, and concern for the well-being and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. Visit our coronavirus response site to learn more about our efforts and the latest updates on our university.