A Taxing Experience Yields a High ROI

By Elizabeth Gangemi, August 17, 2020
Accounting professor injects her courses with fun, and a purpose.

Kari Smoker, assistant professor of accounting and business law, is ready to teach three synchronous online courses this fall. After pivoting unexpectedly to remote learning during the spring 2020 semester, Smoker wasted no time in finding creative ways to engage students, and plans to expand on those successes this semester.

Smoker ran the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program last spring, a service-learning opportunity that Ithaca College students have participated in for several decades. Students are certified by the IRS each year to meet with clients and prepare accurate income tax returns, free of cost.

“The pandemic threatened to throw a serious wrench in the process, because we are normally required to meet face-to-face with clients to confirm their identity and deter fraud,” said Smoker. “This became impossible halfway through tax season, but we submitted a virtual work plan that was approved by the IRS. We were one of fewer than 100 virtual tax clinics nationwide to participate in the virtual pilot program, giving our students an incredible learning opportunity. And they were committed – they stuck with the program through the extended tax deadline of July 15, well beyond the end of the academic year.”

“The real-world scenarios presented in the documentary and in our scripted interviews showcased how the fraud theories we previously had learned tie into actual crimes committed.”

Bobby Heumann ’19, MS '20

Smoker also made the most of Zoom in her graduate-level Fraud Law class during the spring semester. Inspired by a student’s interest in HBO’s “McMillion$” docuseries, she worked together with him to write a script and film a role-play via Zoom — she played an investigative reporter, and he an FBI agent. The video was assigned to the class to view for that week’s discussion. Given the positive feedback from the students, Smoker quietly invited a different student each week to join in the role-playing for the rest of the class to watch.

“There was an element of fun and humor — and an opportunity to see how the course material really mattered — that kept students wanting more,” said Smoker.

Bobby Heumann ’19, MS '20, said the hands-on research of the McMillions fraud scheme kept the class engaged for the remainder of the semester.

“The real-world scenarios presented in the documentary and in our scripted interviews showcased how the fraud theories we previously had learned tie into actual crimes committed,” he said. “The coursework was presented in appropriate amounts, and the real life examples presented by each class member allowed for productive conversations about fraud and various other topics.”

Smoker will teach an introductory course on accounting this fall, a very technical subject that she finds is easiest for students to learn with a hands-on approach. She’ll adapt her typical in-person learning tactics — for example, using Excel to solve a set of problems — to the online environment. She’ll also use Zoom breakout rooms to allow students to work in small groups while she checks in with each group to provide guidance. Most importantly, she plans to stay flexible and open to trying a new approach if something isn’t working as planned.

Kari Smoker is an assistant professor in accounting and business law. She has been teaching for nearly 20 years, and joined the faculty at Ithaca College in fall 2019. She is teaching two sections of undergraduate Management Accounting and a graduate-level Nonprofit and Government Accounting course during fall 2020 – all in a synchronous online format.