What I learned teaching online as a TA

For the past two years, like many professors in higher education, I have been giving online lessons as a teaching assistant. Some of the courses I have taught include CSC108: Introduction to computer programming, CSC207: Software Designand CSC258: IT organization. When I started my in-person teaching experience, I really enjoyed communicating with my students face-to-face – it was easier to clarify concepts. But when the Covid-19 pandemic moved all teaching online, I had to pivot my strategies to see if students understood the same concepts behind their computer screens. As a result, I discovered some educational techniques and technologies that worked for me.

Creating a welcoming environment is essential

When classes were fully online, student schedules remained the same, shifting from class to class. This is called “call skipping”. According to the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, call skipping causes a cognitive load that leads to stress. To combat this, I started using a sanity check-in and mini coloring page as students joined tutorial sessions, while mixing my upbeat Spotify playlist in the background.

Figure 1 — Tutorial slide containing recording and coloring page

A welcoming environment helps students feel at ease. This makes them feel like part of a community before the tutorial or lecture begins. Spotify playlist has been a hit for most of my students according to their feedback in Zoom chat. He encourages students to greet each other and some offer songs. Creating a vibrant online atmosphere keeps students coming back to the tutorial or lecture because it’s lively.

Simple and accessible slides make the difference

Minimalist slides with main key points help students retain information with less cognitive load. The instructor’s explanation of concepts should follow the slides without overshadowing them. Additionally, pacing the lecture with an appropriate rate and tone of voice can significantly help students understand the material.

An outline listing three or four main topics that will be covered at the start of the lecture also helps students better understand the flow. If the topic is advanced, incorporating a few review slides before diving into concepts will help students fill in conceptual gaps.

In an anonymous feedback session for my CSC207: Software Design class, students submitted responses about their thoughts on the structure of my tutorials. “The tutorials are helpful for technical issues and a good guide for tutorial work,” one wrote, referring to the slides and clear instructions provided during the tutorials.

Interactions eliminate distractions

It is important that students understand the concepts of the classroom. Embedding content recordings in slides keeps student engagement high. For open-ended questions, Mentimeter and Google Jamboard are very useful platforms for brainstorming and creating data visualizations such as word clouds. This allows students to connect the dots between their ideas and their classmates. It also reassures them, as it shows that their peers are thinking along the same lines, creating less cognitive load.

Kahoot, a game-based learning platform, can also be used for fun, formative and informative assessments for students to check their understanding. Moreover, distributing stickers online to get a certain number of correct Kahoot quiz questions can greatly boost student confidence. Zoom’s built-in multiple-choice format can also help students narrow down the correct answer, but instructors beware — sometimes overdoing Zoom surveys can cause students to lose interest.

While interactions can eliminate distractions, breaks are just as important. After an hour of class, giving students a 10-15 minute break to digest material, walk around, stretch around their space, or grab a snack also helps.

Breakout rooms can lead to gloom

The common misconception among most instructors is that online breakout rooms will work the same as group work in a live classroom. The reality is that either a few students lead discussions or no one does. This happens because students feel uncomfortable participating because they have no visual cues about the students on the other side of the screen. “I found the breakout rooms to be very random,” one of my students said in his anonymous comments.

For some students, breakout rooms create more cognitive load because no one is participating or many ideas are being discussed. As a result, some feel isolated in both directions, thus dismissing the interest of breakout rooms altogether. To mitigate this experience, give students the option to choose the type of breakout room they want to be in. Do they want to be part of a group where everyone will share ideas? What if they want to be in a group where everyone is calm and thinks for themselves, but likes the presence of others? Maybe they prefer to be in the main room and think for themselves?

Providing this variability in breakout rooms will bring extroverts together and give introverts a safe space for reflection.

Reclaiming the virtual “classroom”

Gather.town is a virtual platform where educators can create an online classroom. This platform has great features that facilitate the online teaching and learning experience. For example, an instructor can decorate the classroom by incorporating virtual furniture like desks and whiteboards. Gather.town can be used as an educational space for all ages. Younger students might find some of the built-in games engaging, and educators can help create an immersive online community. In higher education, Gather.town can build social relationships between students and teachers.

A screenshot of a video game Description automatically generated

Figure 2 — A screenshot of my virtual classroom on Gather.town.

Plus, the attractive design encourages instructors and students to turn on their cameras and microphones, as well as share their screens. Students can also present their work in spotlight mode, share videos and documents. An instructor can use this platform to organize office hours, where students feel comfortable discussing issues with the material or conversing. Since Gather.town is extremely customizable, it has also been used for conferences, virtual office spaces, and more.

Still, nothing beats the physical classroom

Teaching online has taught me to appreciate the meaning of a physical classroom. I have learned that it is important to monitor your students in times of uncertainty and to provide students with the mental health resources that exist on campus. The shift to online teaching has shown me areas where my teaching can improve, including increasing engagement with students. Going forward, I will use many of the educational technologies mentioned in this article that will enhance the in-person learning experience.

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