Enriching the online experience: Dr. Inna Kouper
Inna Kouper can testify to the fact that the online environment is a magnet for diversity.
In her class, "Management, Access, and Use of Big and Complex Data," diversity ran across the board. There were residential and online students, the latter from across the country. Diversity crossed age, gender, academic background, professional level, lifestyle, and work experience. Some students were studying and working part time, and some were working professionals seeking new skills to apply to current jobs, or preparing for new jobs. Some had more than 20 years of database experience. Said Kouper, "This diversity played a role in how and what students learned."
Studies confirm Kouper's assertion. They show that students in diverse learning environments hear a greater variety of perspectives, learn new ways of reshaping issues, improve their ability to think creatively, and come to understand how others think. In an online class, the connections that diverse students make with each other have the potential to be especially rich.
In order to create these connections, Kouper's course required high levels of engagement: weekly lectures, written assignments, and forum discussions. "The diversity of this group was a big advantage," said Kouper. "Especially in forum discussions, the mix of student backgrounds broadened the learning experience. People who've long worked in industry don't tend to switch easily to new technology. In my class they gained new perspectives from the questions and comments of those new to the content. In turn, new students had an opportunity to test what they knew, and to learn from the responses of those working in the field. Also, learning about older technology and how technology has evolved enriched their perspective on technology itself, and on the forces and influences that create change. This depth of engagement and the connections students made across levels of knowledge and experience led to a more complex experience in class."
For Kouper, the flexibility of the online format was an asset. It provided various ways to account for ranges of experience. To help beginners come up to speed, she suggests posting tutorials in Canvas that provide basic understanding of the background material on which the course is built. To ensure the class begins with a shared body of knowledge, students could be required to work through select parts of those materials, which would then form the core of initial lessons. Tutorials could serve as a reference throughout the semester.
Kouper has taught online using Blackboard and Oncourse, but she was new to Canvas. "It takes time to accustom oneself to a new platform," she said. "eLearning Design and Services provided a tremendous amount of help. An instructional designer took care of many aspects of establishing my course online, streamlining Canvas, setting up videos, and adding captions."
In online teaching, she said, "There are always glitches—that's part of the experience. But the benefits of making content available for a larger population is well worth it."
Kouper is assistant scientist at the IU School of Informatics and Computing and interim director of the Data to Insight Center in the Pervasive Technology Institute in the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology. She is also an active member of the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWIT) and an affiliate with the IU Ostrom Workshop.
Kouper encourages faculty who consider teaching online to embrace new tools and experiment with them. "Online platforms can sometimes be frustrating, but they can also provide flexibility and stimulate creativity. If you experiment with them with your students' needs in mind, you can always find something that works—sometimes even better than in an offline classroom."
Faculty who want support in teaching online have multiple university resources to choose from that address every stage of creating and delivering an online course or program, including videos of instructors addressing commonly asked questions about the online teaching experience. Browse the Teaching Online website to learn more.