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From Managing Breakout Rooms to Online Discussions, Online TA Skills Series Helps Graduate Instructors Through Virtual Semester

October 8, 2020
By Hailey Stiehl
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern

Online TA Skills workshop graphic
Image created with graphics from Vecteezy

For graduate teaching assistants, establishing privacy for students during office hours normally isn’t an issue—simply close the door. In the new normal, however, even simple things can be tricky.

As many courses shift online during the pandemic, TAs have been forced to adapt to new challenges like maintaining that same sense of privacy for students during Zoom office hours. To help TAs manage the difficulties of preparing for and maintaining online classrooms, The Graduate School partnered with Duke Learning Innovation to create the Online TA Skills workshop series.

Sophia Stone, a senior consultant with Duke Learning Innovation, began working with Hugh Crumley, assistant dean for academic affairs in The Graduate School, back in late spring on the workshop series. Former and current Bass Digital Education Fellows contributed to the design and development of the workshops throughout the summer.

The first workshop launched May 19. Over the summer, the four-workshop series was offered twice and drew large numbers of attendees. It is currently being offered again, having expanded to six workshops. It has also led to the development of other resources for TAs.

“The Online TA Workshop Series has resulted in a set of resources developed by Learning Innovation called the Duke Flexible Teaching website, which includes online guides designed specifically for TAs,” Stone said. “Our team has also developed an Online TA Skills Sakai site which is open to all Duke TAs and includes resources and videos to help them in their instructional role.”

Covering topics such as facilitating online class discussions, effectively using video, and managing breakout rooms on Zoom, the workshop series has worked to ensure that instructors feel comfortable in a virtual classroom while also reminding TAs to connect with their students as they would do in-person.

“Since the entire semester will be remote for many students, it will be easier for students to fall through the cracks, both academically and mentally/emotionally,” said Jon Holt, a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering. “By making an effort to reach out to students on an individual basis, TAs can keep tabs on students’ wellbeing, and intervene early if a student needs assistance.”

Like Holt, Crumley advises teaching assistants to remember that “the same fundamental principles are in play whether we are teaching online or face-to-face.”

“Having a very clear structure in class is incredibly important, so that students know exactly what is expected of them and how to direct their effort,” Crumley said. “Also, clear channels of communication among the instructional staff and students is also critical, given that currently, what would usually be our default (i.e., face-to-face) may not be practical (or safe!). Finally, it’s also very important that we acknowledge and celebrate the different perspectives and experiences that all our students bring to class.”

To support that emphasis on diverse perspectives, the workshop offers resources and training to ensure that the virtual classroom is inclusive for all students.

“In addition to the digital pedagogy and digital tools training we are offering, we’ve been able to integrate inclusive teaching in our workshops and share an online discussion guide TAs can use in Zoom breakout rooms to create a welcoming, accessible, and more inclusive climate for all learners,” Stone said.

For music Ph.D. candidate Dayton Kinney, the best part of being on some of the workshop’s graduate student panels was being involved with the discussions of online classroom management.

“It is within these discussions that many of our participants come alive with their own unique approaches and solutions of real situations that we all find ourselves in during the start or end of a semester,” Kinney said. “Participation is always lively, and we approach these informal case studies as a way for our series to keep evolving and adapting.”