“You know how much I enjoy being a TA! I think I am going to miss the in-person interaction with the students. And, after all of this [the pandemic] is over, I will probably not be the same,” said one of my fellow graduate students. They said this while standing in the golden hues of sunset, looking longingly at our cherished Bell Tower. We were leaving campus as UCR closed on March 16th, 2020 to mitigate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2. I couldn't agree more with her as we talked about pedagogical strategies we should adopt now that the entire instruction would be online for spring.
More than two months have passed since that evening. Many of us, like me and my friend, had little experience with TAing in online or hybrid teaching and learning environments. despite that, we have persisted in the face of various degrees of adversities. As the dust continues to settle on our pilot online TAing attempts and we're finally getting used to the new technological feasibilities, it's a good time to reflect on the lessons we learned this quarter. Of course, there were gratifying moments in this new journey, but there were also were some less than ideal moments that demands consideration and subsequent readjustments. Read on to revisit the challenges we've identified and to get 5 tips on critical online pedagogy to smoothen the creases we all have experienced so far.
[Image Description: Caroline Watson from Teachers types anxiously on her laptop and shouts “YES” as she makes a breakthrough]
Pictured: You, after finding this comprehensive resource to solve all your online TAing woes
What We Learned
Before we as a community, found ourselves in this newfound land of online teaching, online teaching was a realm shrouded in mystery and myths. Before we go on, it's important to first look at some of the common misconceptions we've demystified this quarter.
- Myth: Online classes are like crock pots, we just set them up and wait for the end product to be ready. Historically, online classes have long been considered as electronic correspondence courses, where the instructor creates the contents (lectures, assignments, activities) in advance. The students are expected to walk through the content alone, submit their assignments, and then receive grades.
- Reality: This method simply doesn’t work unless the online students are highly motivated and have foundational knowledge on the subject. A significant number of students wrestling between their job and other commitments (including family), can never achieve this expected level of independence/mastery on their own without constant guidance from the instructor/TA.
- Myth: Online learning is not as fruitful as traditional instruction because students are disengaged. Many online students are susceptible to disengagement and they tend to put minimum required effort towards learning. They lack time management skills and are not able to monitor/adjust their current learning habits to more effective ones.
- Reality: While I do agree that many some students tend to drift from the class, I invite you to contemplate on the following questions:
- Does your course have an intuitive and appealing design?
- Do you have an ongoing commitment to improving yourself as an online instructor?
- Did you consider the inherent technical challenges of learning online that students face?
- How well do you know your student population (that includes students working and/or raising children while pursuing degrees, students with different abilities, etc.)?
If you have affirmative answers to at least some of these questions, you will agree with me that to become a good online TA requires us to put conscious extra effort in all aspects of our preparation and pedagogies. Doing so will help our students overcome the lack of social interaction and procedural support they otherwise get in a physical classroom.
- Myth: Online teaching is not enjoyable for the instructor because these classes don’t work as well as in-person classes. About 45 percent of the 13,451 respondents in the 2017 Educause survey on faculty and information technology believed that online learning doesn't work.
- Reality: There is a wealth of evidence that proves online courses produce student learning outcomes equivalent to those of traditional classes. Similarly, if we are finding online instruction to be less rewarding, it's probably because we're undertaking less “teaching”/dynamic instruction and more “logistic” tasks like just logging-in to grade student work.
[Image Description: A man tries to focus on his work as a little child gleefully walks in his study room]
Pictured: Your students, trying to concentrate despite all distractions
What We Can Improve
One of the very first things that I learned while teaching online was how much I depended on non-verbal cues in the classroom. I always look for eye contact, head nods, torsos sinking down in chairs--both as signs of student engagement and signs of lack of engagement. These student gestures help me to readjust my pace and the modalities I use. Now that we don’t have these cues to help guide us, it doesn’t mean we're powerless. Therefore:
1. Explore the Potential of Asynchronous Instruction
While it's convenient for an instructor to synchronously deliver the content---it doesn’t require extra preparation other than creating the PowerPoint and notes---now is a good time to explore other pedagogically sound instruction time. The first thing to do is to disentangle yourself from synchronous delivery. Consider alternatives to your current plan where at least a part of the course will be asynchronous. You can:
- Record 7-10-minutes worth of content and post these short videos on BlackBoard. Remember to keep the videos short and succinct to avoid losing your students' attention. Use visuals instead of texts (be mindful of accessibility).
- Use low-tech tools like Zoom to capture videos. You can also achieve decent results using PowerPoint to capture audio notes.
Note: Check the “Always Use Subtitles” box under the “Slide Show” tab before entering the “Presenter View.” This way you can record subtitles while capturing a video lecture. For a demonstration of this process and more technical tips, watch the Teaching An Online Class workshop.
- Explore the Keep Teaching webpage to find out more about the resources available to you. Here are several recorded webinars on topics like Designing Effective Video Lectures, Alternative Assessments, Recording A PowerPoint Presentation, Google Meet Basics, iLearn Beyond Basics and many more.
- Utilize some of the synchronous time for student-centered learning which could include reviewing case studies, problem-solving, student presentations, group discussions etc. I am holding student hours, a modified form of office hours, with up to 30 students at a time. I provide the content to the students ahead of time and utilize the student hour for discussion and/or clarification rather than lecturing.
Protocol for conducting effective synchronous student hours using Zoom/ Google Meet: Schedule student hours similar to how you would create any other Zoom meeting. The tips below will help you work with several students in a single meeting without getting overwhelmed.
- If your students all have similar questions, keep everyone in the main room so they can listen to your explanations as a group.
- Have students enter their questions on a Google Doc or in the chat so you can answer them in order.
Note: I prefer Google Doc, as it can be used by the whole class as a permanent resource. I encourage my students to enter their questions in this Google Doc instead of emailing them to me directly so that others who have similar queries can see my answers.
- Make sure each student has a chance to get their questions addressed during the student hours.
- If there are many students with different questions, try using breakout rooms. With this feature in Zoom, you can manually create groups. This can allow you to:
Facilitate Peer-instruction: One of the best pedagogical tools to engage students is the use of active learning in the form of peer-instruction. Create groups based on student questions to give your students an opportunity to teach each other. You as the meeting host can divide your time between different meeting rooms to guide students in the right direction.
- Enable a waiting room for the main zoom session. This allows you to admit students into the meeting one-by-one in case you are having confidential/sensitive discussions with one student at that moment.
- You could also allow students to schedule appointments at specific times to meet with you, so you know what questions to expect ahead of time. I recommend that you use Calendly to schedule appointments, which will eliminate the need for back-and-forth emails and save your time. Calendly is also supporting free integration with video conferencing tools like Zoom at this moment.
2. Be the “Mentor at the Center”
Effective learning requires TAs to be the “Guide on the Side” and NOT a “Sage on the Stage." During this quarter, we've all experienced a moment where it feels like our unique teaching persona, for example, our instructional scaffolding approaches (how you model activities and thinking required in your discipline) getting lost in the ether. So, if our old teaching personal isn't quite the right fit for teaching online, how do we assume a different role? I like to define this revised role as the “Mentor at the Center.”
This ongoing pandemic may, for some students, be the first real crisis they ever experienced. With this in mind, we must consciously work to lighten the anxiety they're feeling over being remote. We must also consciously work to change their potentially incorrect perception of what is lost in an online classroom environment. As we and our students are not meeting face-to-face, it is time to infuse our unique voice in our writing.
- Remember to convey your support. Instead of writing “Those of you have missed the last week’s quiz won’t pass this course if you continue being negligent,” reword your emails and announcements. Try something like “I understand you all have a lot to manage in this difficult situation. Just a reminder, make sure that you have submitted the make-up quiz by coming Friday, May 29th to help you to be successful in this class. Please contact me if you have any questions!”
- Contrary to popular belief, students appreciate seeing your face and hearing your voice. We as humans have a tendency to not trust unknown persons with our worries and insecurities. Unless we build a connection with our students, how can we expect them to reach out to us with their difficulties? Always remind yourself that they haven’t seen you in-person during this quarter. I would suggest you record short video messages/send BlackBoard announcements of encouragement often, specifically before the midterms/finals. These help them to see you as a real person behind that square little screen.
- Focus on depth over breadth. Carefully consider what is essential to cover and what could be left out. The potential of learning in any course is surprisingly broad and it doesn’t always involve a lot of readings or content. Instead, learning could come from building new skills and focusing on connections, reflections and applications.
[Image Description: A mouse bench-presses using the hammer of a mousetrap]
Pictured: Us, making the most out of our current situations
3. Explain Your Expectations Early and Clearly
Often in online classes, the only instruction about assignments that students receive comes in the form of written text. We often think this instruction is clear. We forget the fact that instructions often lack the subtle nuances of information we would discuss face-to-face. Online students can’t ask for clarification right at the moment they first encounter your written assignments. Therefore,
- Write down the instructions for your assignments in a conversational tone, so they don’t read like textbook directions.
- If possible, create a 2-3-minute video explaining the instructions as you would have discussed them in-person.
- Always provide a rubric with the instructions.
- Provide the instructions early in the quarter to avoid confusion.
4. Involve Your Students
In my experience, students can be astoundingly supportive when given the opportunity. If they know you're trying your best and wholeheartedly want them to succeed, they're often more than willing to co-operate with you.
- Be open in discussing learning objectives for topics with students. Talk about changes in your approach if you're planning any as you moved from in-class to online.
- Discuss why the topics covered in the class matter or ask the students to make this connection themselves. It is now extremely relevant to discuss the events of this pandemic in our respective classes specifically in disciplines like business, economics, communications, journalism, life sciences, psychology, sociology, and mathematical modeling when appropriate.
- Incorporate some cool tech: You can introduce your students to Loomies, a free app that allows you to create your very own 3-D avatar and personalized stickers to be used in GBoard and Slack communications. Sound exciting? There’s more to it! LoomieLive allows real-time communication as a 3D avatar in video conferencing apps like Zoom. This is a great tool for your camera-shy students and their avatars’ eye contacts and gestures will give you necessary non-verbal cues.
5. Seek Frequent Feedback
Create your own survey to ask students (at least twice during the quarter) what’s working well for them in the course, and what they find challenging. This encourages students to reflect on their own challenges and to seek support.
- I recommend the use of Google Form for this purpose as you can migrate and analyze the student responses in a .xlsx file. I have provided an early student feedback survey form for your convenience.
- Some questions to ask in this form are:
- What is contributing to your learning in this class (what is going well)?
- What is a concrete action the TA can take now that would enhance your learning in this class?
- Is there any additional information you want to share with the TA?
- They may share some innovative options or technological solutions. You're not expected to adopt every idea they bring, but you’ll certainly gain invaluable student buy-in through this process.
[Image Description: Graduation caps flying in and landing on the laptop screens showing certificates of completion
Pictured: Your effective online instruction, making successful students
Before I conclude, I have a couple of suggestions to highlight.
Never underestimate the need for ongoing commitment in improving your online teaching skills. I suggest you all build a community of TAs who are interested in improving online instructional skills within your respective departments. Learn about what approaches and techniques are working for others and contribute your own ideas or insights. If possible, try to build a department-specific TA resources Google Drive. If you don’t find anyone to discuss your online teaching challenges, I am just one email away. Send me an email at email@example.com to discuss and explore different pedagogical strategies.
Take your self-care game up a notch. While it is undeniably important to use the most effective online pedagogical tools as TAs, let’s not forget about our own wellbeing. To alleviate Zoomathon-inspired headaches and certain periods of fatigue and helplessness, we must strengthen our coping abilities by incorporating healthy eating and sleeping habits, having a decent amount of physical activity, and practicing mindfulness in our daily routines. UCR Recreation Center is conducting several fitness and wellness classes virtually. They also have various fitness equipment for checkout.
Do you all remember the friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I spoke to her recently, and guess what? It turns out she's using all the instructional strategies I just shared with all of you! And she concluded by saying “After all of this (the pandemic) is over, I will definitely not be the same. I will hopefully become a better TA”. So, will you!
Additional resource: Comprehensive Google Doc containing links to remote-teaching resources available at various universities across the United States just in case you wish to explore more about the subject of online teaching.