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TAing to Thousands: A Graduate Student MOOC Panel

Posted by on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 in Events, News.

 What is it like to serve as a teaching assistant in a course with thousands of students?

On February 24, 2014, the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, Center for Teaching, Graduate School, and Jean & Alexander Heard Library co-sponsored a panel of graduate students (and one undergraduate student) who have served as Teaching Assistants for Vanderbilt’s MOOCs (massive open online courses). Panelists included Ruth Herrin (Student Thinking at the Core), Daniel Jimenez (Nutrition, Health, and Lifestyle: Issues and Insights), Zach McCormick (Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures: Programming Mobile Services for Android Handheld System), Don Rodriguez and Blaine Smith (Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative), and Ben Shapiro (Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations).

Below is a summary of the key insights that arose across panelists sharing their experiences as TAs, as well as the discussion that took place during the session.

Teaching online involves collaboration. All of the panelists agreed that teaching a MOOC is a collaborative endeavor, with team members distributing tasks across technical and content fields. Don Rodriguez explained how the collaborative process for facilitating Online Games involved working closely with the course Professor (Jay Clayton) and co-TA to design the curriculum and assessments, videographers, the Coursera team, and mentoring undergraduates with specific technical expertise. Others described how the time intensity of TAing a MOOC requires flexibility, strategic time management, and clear communication amongst group members. As Ben Shapiro stated, “You can’t have enough TAs for these courses!”

Responsiveness on discussion boards is key. With thousands of MOOC students—representing diversity in ages, languages, content understanding, and technical abilities—it is crucial to establish an online presence in the course discussion boards. Zach McCormick emphasized that for the course he TAed, frequently monitoring and responding to student discussion posts helped him to dispel common misconceptions, build good will, and provide just-in-time feedback. Daniel Jimenez shared that a majority of his time as a TA involved addressing students’ needs right away on the discussion boards to avoid problems from “spreading like wildfire.”

Assessments can be more than online quizzes and tests. The panelists agreed that there are many constraints when it comes to assessing the learning of thousands of students in a MOOC. Ruth Herin emphasized the difficulty of integrating student-driven pedagogy within a system that often encourages teacher-centered instruction. However, a couple of the panelists shared how they worked with their instructor to move past the standard online quizzes and tests to develop collaborative, multimodal and learner-centered MOOC assessments. Ben Shapiro explained how students worked on course-long team projects—some collaborating in person and some online. Blaine Smith described how she worked with Jay Clayton and Don Rodriquez to develop three digital, in-game, and multimodal assessments that supported students in demonstrating their knowledge of central concepts. All panelists who assigned peer-reviewed assessments emphasized the importance of providing students detailed grading rubrics and resources to accommodate all technical abilities.

Professionalization opportunities. Not only did the panelists believe TAing for a MOOC provided valuable online teaching experience, but it also opened up a variety of professional opportunities, including conference presentations and publications. A couple of panelists shared that their MOOC experience was of particularly interest to employers while on the job market.

For more information about MOOCs at Vanderbilt, visit the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning and Center for Teaching’s guide on MOOCs. A video of the session will be available on the VIDL website.

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