The Producers

Teaching Assistants take on a new role in the shifting world of online learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rony Zarom

CREDIT WatchitooThanks to the growing popularity and interest in the online classroom, the roles of the professor and teaching assistant (TA) are shifting. Increased usage of two-way video and accessibility of multimedia course materials are not only enhancing the online learning experience for students, but it’s ushering in a new tech-savvy role for instructors and, especially, the teaching assistants supporting them. When we think of online classrooms, we tend to draw a close a comparison to what is familiar. Online learning platforms, from iTunes U to MOOC providers, often deliver classes from the perspective of a student watching an instructor in a lecture hall. The behind-the-scenes preparation of such classes is also traditional, as the presenting instructor organizes and outlines notes, creates a slide deck and gathers student feedback via quizzes or Socratic questioning. But there is a second role that’s just as important: that of producer.

As McLuhan said, the medium is the message. In order for online education to fulfill its potential, the medium must evolve beyond the lecture-capture model that focuses on a one-dimensional view of a professor and the course material. Students expect a more interactive experience like that of social media platforms. For example, live interactive and multi-streaming class platforms mean students participate in the class discussion via their own audio and video. Problem sets, presentations and auxiliary materials need to be called on-screen at a moment’s notice. The instructor is more than just a teacher. With the right technology, he is the star and producer of a TV show.

So what does this mean for the future of teaching? In addition to requiring new skills, the role of teacher and TA are morphing. Traditionally, TAs took lecture notes, graded assignments and led discussion sections. Given education’s evolving online presence, today’s TA may soon develop a new role as class producer rather than class assistant, proving invaluable to classrooms of the future.

We know the role of the TA in a traditional setup. They are often seated in the front row of the lecture hall taking notes, grading assignments and leading discussion sections outside of class. Yet the medium of online learning offers a new challenge to our notions of classroom structure, including the role and skills of the TA. Because the online class takes a lot of work to produce, TAs will need to step up to help. We suggest three focus areas for TAs to become more effective class producers.

1)    New tech changes up class preparation. Familiarity with both the course video/e-learning platform and the course content are equally essential. As platforms increasingly offer multiple video feeds, a TA needs to be adept at controlling which participants appear on screen, while an instructor focuses on leading a discussion. Platforms also allow rapid on-screen integration of supplemental material. They also need to queue and load tables, maps, and quotations in advance, even if they aren’t included in a lecture outline. During class, a TA must be ready to display these materials independently if a discussion focuses on a particular detail. In many ways, this is the “online form” of note-taking. The TA is best-positioned for this role, at the intersection of content expertise and logistical responsibility.

2)    Acquire basic audio skills. The proliferation of home recording and podcasting has made decent-quality microphones affordable. An instructor can markedly improve audio quality with a tabletop or lapel mic. TAs should know where and how to invest in the right equipment for the kind of class they support. The bulk of a lecture or discussion’s content is verbally conveyed. Glitchy audio can be even more distracting than subpar video. If multiple participants will have significant speaking time, such as during a multi-streamed discussion, a TA with audio skills is well-prepared to check on audio equipment in advance.

3)    Let there be light. Because online courses rely heavily on video, proper lighting of the teachers and students is important. This is especially true as courses expand to include mobile video or built-in, and often shaky, USB cameras. As with audio controls, a TA can set up the class for success simply by adding better lighting. Move away from windows that back-light and therefore darken the presenter. Use incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs rather than the overhead fluorescents found in many offices. Encourage other participants to do the same, and the viewing experience will be much improved.

The coming months will bring exciting challenges to online education for both large and small classrooms, not the least of which will happen inside the classroom itself. The successes, day-by-day and class-to-class, will be engendered by those who seize on the new roles and opportunities. So be sure to pick up the basic producing skills you need and you’ll help turn your teachers into stars.

Rony Zarom is the CEO of Watchitoo, combining video conferencing, collaboration and online video into a single scalable platform that enhances interaction for both instructors and students. 

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