Involving Teaching Assistants in the Online Classroom

by Kristina Wilson

Introduction

Have you been thinking about involving a teaching assistant (TA) in your online course? TAs are a great way to provide supplemental instruction opportunities for students, as well as help instructors manage a demanding online class.

Take it from me–I’ve been a TA in an online course! With a little creativity and trust, we can be involved in most components of online courses to your benefit and ours.

Start with the Pragmatics

Once you’ve identified a TA for your online course, talk through the pragmatics, the way you might with a TA in a face-to-face course.

Meet before the quarter starts to:

  • Establish a mentoring relationship and work with your TA to set goals that are meaningful for them.
  • Review policy expectations for the course. What components is the TA clearly responsible or not responsible for? Should the TA copy you when they message students? How should they respond in the event of an academic integrity violation? Do you prefer particular settings on assignments?
  • Set expectations about the amount of time the TA should be spending in the course site, including any hard or recurring deadlines and expected turnaround time for assessment tasks.
  • Provide your TA with Canvas and Northwestern IT resources. It’s important to know how to troubleshoot Canvas errors and know when reach out for assistance from technical support, and from whom.

After the course has ended, debrief with your TA to share feedback in both directions and review the goals you set together. What was your TA most successful at accomplishing? What could they improve next time? The same goes for you. What does your TA think might improve your course or teaching technique?

Develop a Voice in Announcements

TAs can–and should!–present themselves to students through the announcements. A friendly welcome, a weekly wrap-up, an accolade, a news article, a Canvas tip, or a reminder of an upcoming deadline go a long way toward making a TA more approachable. You might even consider a brief video announcement, especially if students will be recording video as part of your class. Students often reach out to a TA before reaching out to the instructor, so reducing student apprehension can help students get the assistance they need.

Get Involved in Sync Sessions

Sync sessions are another great way to help TAs connect with students in the course and flex group facilitation skills. If you have a synchronous session planned–say, to answer questions about the syllabus or address concerns before an exam–involve your TA to help present content, field questions, read comments from the chat window aloud, and help keep students engaged. Does your TA have an idea for an optional, synchronous activity? It could be an opportunity to have them design and facilitate a session of their own.

Keep the Discussions Active

An engaging online instructor will interact with students in weekly discussion forums by challenging opinions, asking questions to extend the conversation, making corrections, sharing resources and anecdotes, and encouraging civil discourse. TAs can contribute in similarly substantial ways, adding another trained voice to the conversation. In addition to actively contributing to the discourse, you might ask your TA to visit the discussion boards every day to keep an eye on ongoing or weekly discussions. Just reading posts and getting a feel for the conversation can help inform assignment feedback as you get a better idea of students’ interests and motivations.

Participate in Evaluation

From student surveys, we know that personal feedback is important to an engaging online experience. If you have a large class or a very quick turnaround time (say, between draft and final versions), TAs can help you manage the scale. Most TAs are interested in practicing grading and giving feedback to students: What kind of feedback encourages the most changes to a draft? How do you grade fairly using a holistic rubric? Instructors who share this task with their TAs should meet to align their expectations on feedback content, tone, and length.

TAs are also well-suited to assist in giving participation-based grades. They will have been “on the ground” in an online class, noting which students have been active contributors and which have been reluctant participants.

Keep an Eye Out for Quality Assurance

Your TA will have a bird’s-eye view of the course, with access to all resources and pages in the course site (and the ability to edit them!). If you’re concerned about broken links or outdated resources, you could ask your TA to perform a quality assurance check week by week. In the next week of the class, are all the documents available to download? Are all of the assignment settings correct? Are the links to required readings active?

Share Additional Resources

Often, your TA isn’t so far removed from being a student themselves. That makes them perfect for finding and sharing additional resources. Thinking from the student perspective, TAs can help identify (and support the use of) digital tools to help organize notes, put together slides, record videos, or complete other tasks.

A TA also typically shares some of the student experience, keeping up with the readings and media week-by-week. With the course content fresh in their mind, it is a perfect opportunity to share relevant news stories, job postings, and university resources.

Provide Ad Hoc Support

TAs can also provide valuable out-of-class support. In some classes, this may take the form of online “office hours” in which the TA is available at a regular time each week via phone or videoconference to field questions and give feedback. In other classes, the TA may identify pain points in the curriculum (topics, skills, or tasks that students are finding particularly difficult) and hold a webinar or sync session to provide supplemental instruction or content review. Ad hoc support often comes in the form of responding to e-mail or Canvas messages in a timely manner, too.

Conclusion

Your TA can–and should!–be an active part of your online course. There are many ways that a TA can contribute to community-building in the course and an improved student experience. Consider asking your TA to send a few announcements, get involved in the sync sessions, keep the discussions active, participate in evaluation, keep an eye out for quality assurance, share additional resources, and provide ad hoc support.



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