Tracy Dawson, mother of two and outstanding student at IU East
IU Online student Tracy Dawson was named Outstanding Student in Psychology for the 2018–19 academic year at the IU East campus. In May, Tracy will graduate from IU East with a BS in Psychology and a minor in neuroscience.
Dawson wanted to turn her associate degree in psychology into a BS, and as a busy mom with two kids, she needed the convenience of online education. Two weeks before classes started, she applied to IU Online. "That timeframe didn't stand in my way," she said. "IU Online was responsive. They understood the urgency of my need to get started immediately. Transferring my credits was wonderfully smooth. I was able to speak with my advisor right away." At IU Online, Dawson found the academic quality and the flexibility she needed. "I was able to earn my degree and still be there for my kids," she said. "The flexibility online learning afforded my family was phenomenal."
Dawson completed her associate degree at a brick-and-mortar institution. Comparing her IU Online and on-campus experiences, Dawson said, "Online classes were more challenging. There were a lot more assignments, and in a greater variety of formats—more papers, lectures, quizzes, online discussions, and structured peer feedback. This variety was an advantage. Not every student learns in the same way. Some are visual learners, some are writers, others take tests well, others are auditory learners. This variety helped me as a learner. Assignments took discipline. I was more challenged than in a face-to-face class, in a very positive way."
The online academic experience
Each class was different, noted Dawson, but each was structured; and the structure kept her organized. Some instructors made learning modules available in Canvas on Sunday or Monday, and set assignment deadlines at the end of each week. Discussion board topics were posted weekly, with the first deadlines for student responses on Thursday, and a second round due over the weekend. Lectures included multiple formats—interactive texts, recorded presentations, and weekly updates on the main topics in assigned readings.
For Dawson, online discussion boards were a multi-faceted learning experience. "Discussions were engaging. I learned things and understood viewpoints I wouldn't otherwise have pulled from the texts." The format enriched the academic experience, but also provided lessons on communicating in the professional world. Professors provided ground rules for working with others online, including the etiquette of crafting responses to other students' comments. Dawson mastered the art of disagreeing gracefully. "The discussion board experience was geared toward building an understanding of how to handle ourselves in a professional environment. Along with academic content, courses included this component of real-world training. The ultimate goal was building understanding that there's a way to handle yourself in email, texting, working with faculty."
Dawson had participated in lab sessions in a brick-and-mortar environment, and she was eager to see how they’d be conducted online. For a nutrition lab, she received, via US mail, a complete kit for conducting hands-on experiments. The kit included test tubes, chemicals, and gloves. "I ran experiments and sent my results back through Canvas. My online lab for a physiology class was especially clear. Anytime I did something wrong, I received immediate feedback that helped me see exactly where I'd gone wrong. I understood the reason behind certain steps—a level of learning I'm not sure I'd have had in a face-to-face environment."
Support and encouragement
"I was extremely pleased with the amount of contact I had with my advisor and professors," said Dawson. She hailed her advisor Liz Ferris: "We talked before I signed up for classes each semester, and I felt like I was the only student she had. She was easily accessible by email or phone. She helped me with whatever I needed to talk about, answered my questions, helped me define my goals. She was an advocate for me."
She described her professors as "completely accessible. I felt I could contact them at any time, even outside office hours. Those of us near campus could set up in-person meetings." Dawson gave special mention to Assistant Professor of Psychology Amanda Kraha. "My first writing assignment didn't go as I'd hoped. Professor Kraha gave me as much time as I needed to talk. When it came time to write a 15-page thesis on what we'd learned in the class, and how that might relate to future goals or a career, I felt less than confident. I'd never written a 15-page paper. Professor Kraha took the time to encourage me, and helped me build the confidence to accomplish this writing task. This was a wonderful end to my experience."
Cost was a big factor in Dawson's decision to pursue her degree through IU Online. She wanted to avoid student loans, and IU Online's in-state fees made that possible. "Considering the salaries I expect for the jobs I'm considering, IU Online was a prudent investment."
Dawson encourages those considering online study to "just do it. It's been amazing. I couldn't have achieved what I have without online learning. Are you working? Do you have children at home? The flexibility online learning affords, the number and range of courses, the many ways to learn—I didn't experience this range in the brick-and-mortar classroom setting. All those I worked with at IU East went above and beyond to make me feel I was part of campus. IU East has given all this to me. I can't say enough positive things about IU East."
Dawson plans to take a year off to work in a school setting, then pursue a graduate degree in school psychology or school counseling. "My experience as an older online student will be an asset," she said. "I'll use my own struggles with working and raising children and overcoming self-doubt to help and encourage my future students."