Teaching assistants and online learning

In this edition of the Edubytes newsletter, our guest editorial looks at the changes to the role of teaching assistants (TAs) that resulted from the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching and learning.

Sharing their insights and suggestions are Dr. Grace Truong, lecturer and TA training coordinator in the Department of Psychology, Jeff Bale, PhD Candidate and former TA coordinator in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and facilitator at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT), and Dr. Shaya Golparian, TA development educational developer at the CTLT.

How teaching assistants have been impacted by remote teaching & learning

In the rapid shift to online learning in early 2020, teaching assistants (TAs) worked tirelessly alongside instructors to support student learning under unprecedented conditions.

Throughout the first few months, there were substantial concerns about how changes in course formats would increase burdens faced by TAs. Like many others, most teaching assistants went into the pandemic with little or no training related to online teaching. Nonetheless, UBC’s TAs strived to support students with compassion and flexibility, while facing their own personal and academic challenges.

As we approach the shift back to face-to-face teaching, we would like to highlight the lived experience of TAs, and offer some suggestions for supporting them when encountering future changes in the teaching context.

Changes to the teaching assistant role

With the shift to online teaching, TA workloads increased as TAs scrambled to complete their tasks without access to their institutions’ on-campus devices and technologies. Existing issues such as academic misconduct, which impacts TA duties including invigilation and marking, were also exacerbated.

TAs often needed to supplement their regular office hours with extra meeting times to accommodate students in distant time zones. They also performed additional emotional labour as students reported myriad struggles including illness, familial obligations, and financial stressors. Despite university guidelines to keep within contracted hours, including UBC’s COVID-19 TA guidelines (PDF), some TAs reported working over their contracted hours in an effort to “go with the flow,” leading to burnout.

In spite of these disruptions, TAs found ways to enhance student experience and learning by creating online learning communities using Zoom breakout rooms and shared virtual whiteboards, or by using the chat features to boost engagement and collaboration.

What’s next for teaching assistants?

TAs have learned many new skills during this sudden shift in teaching spaces; some of these will transfer directly into the face-to-face context, while others lead to higher level insights that could generate more profound transformations in practice.

More courses will likely be offered online, even as students and faculty return to campus. TAs, now experienced with online technologies, can continue using them to support students in any context where they will benefit from greater flexibility and accommodation. Skills like encouraging student engagement and normalizing attention to student wellness will transfer to better student experiences in face-to-face or hybrid teaching contexts.

Moreover, TAs’ experience of online teaching and learning has provided them with the opportunity to recognize the advantages of physical classroom space, that they can now better leverage in their teaching. These include the use of movement as an engagement strategy, the ability to read the room and receive non-verbal communication from students, and other elements they may have taken for granted in the past.

Suggestions for supporting teaching assistants moving forward

  • Any change in teaching context impacts TA roles and duties, and adds additional demand on their time. It is essential to provide paid and timely training and support for TAs for any future change in teaching context.
  • Shifts to the nature and intensity of work duties and responsibilities, especially without proper training and/or support, has a huge impact on TA mental health and wellness. TA mental health and wellbeing needs to be prioritized when unforeseen circumstances necessitate changes in their role and their workload.
  • It is also essential to recognize the TAs’ dual role as students and teachers, and how this dual role can negatively impact their wellbeing without proper support from instructors.
  • Changes to teaching context often bring about the need for different technologies and support. Properly equipping TAs with necessary equipment, training, and logistical support for shifts in context is essential to their ability to meet these new challenges.
  • As students themselves, TAs are not the right people to support students who are experiencing mental health and wellness challenges. It is essential to provide TAs with resources about how to respond when students divulge personal hardships and where to direct them.
  • We need to create opportunities for TAs to reflect on what worked better online in their work, and what about it was better. These reflections should include ways in which those advantages can be carried directly into the face-to-face space and ways that they could be translated from an online to a face-to-face context.
  • Given that monitoring online contributions by students seems to have a huge positive impact on student learning, we need to make a dedicated time slot for TAs, as part of their TA duties, to monitor online content.

Enjoyed reading about the changes to the role of teaching assistants (TAs) that resulted from the rapid transition to emergency remote teaching and learning? Learn about other topics we covered in the June 2021 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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