Supporting Communities of Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Students in MOOCs

Fulfilling this role has been a tremendous honor and, in addition to all of the usual administrivia, one of the new initiatives I was excited to lead is an interview series with Community Teaching Assistants (TAs). There are many fantastic TAs in our CS169x Community, and I wanted to take this opportunity to tell the success stories of TAs who’ve gone from edX Student, to edX Teaching Assistant, to professional freelancers. You can see two of these videos here:

Tyler Kresch

Listen to Community TA Taylor Kresch tell his story on YouTube.

Andrew Smith

Listen to Community TA Andrew Smith tell his story on YouTube.

A healthy TA community is of course essential to the success of a MOOC. It’s interesting to reflect on how placing the spotlight on successful TAs helps bolster that community, and also inspires the community of MOOC students themselves. Being able to hear the TA’s stories is fascinating and gives both parties a chance to thank each other for their volunteer efforts.

This summer we have 250 community TAs in CS169 Software as a Service, and in order to help improve community coherence we put together a community site for the TAs themselves, recorded weekly short videos on the topics of the week, and created a real time Skype text chat room where the world TAs can hang out and reflect on issues coming up in the forums. This real time chat environment supplements our TA email communications and allows the TAs and instructors to get to know each other much better and support each other more effectively.

Other activities include giving all TAs full access to the entire course in advance of the students and running a competition to see which TAs can find the most errata with curricular material and co-ordinating fixing those issues via pivotal tracker. All of these initiatives resulted from a fantastic brainstorming sessions with edX staff Grace Lyo and Melanie MacFarlane. Many thanks!

One of the key problems with MOOCs can be the sense of isolation that many students and TAs face. This is something that is only partly mitigated by interaction through asynchronous message boards and email lists. Real time text chat can decrease that sense of isolation and real time pair programming over Google hangouts or Skype screen share can further break down the barriers to the point that you start to get the dynamics and feel of a face to face classroom. To that end we started a pair programming community on Google Plus.

We are encouraging students to find pair programming partners on Google Plus, as well as running scheduled group coding events. This is still an experimental approach, owing much to trailblazing work by the likes of Scott Klemmer who employed Google hangouts for select groups of students in his HCI MOOC. Initial feedback is positive from Community TAs and students alike, and we are looking forward to continuing to reach out to both the community of TAs and the wider community of students through whichever social media provides the best support for online educational experiences.

Dr. Joseph holds Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Cognitive Science and Natural Language from Edinburgh University, UK., as well as a M.S. in Computer Science from University of Hawaii at Manoa.Dr. Joseph is fascinated by the potential of technology to help scaffold the learning process. He teaches entirely online from London, UK, some 10 or 11 timezones away from Hawaii depending on the time of year. Dr. Joseph continues to develop a variety of different technological supports to deliver a high quality education experience online. One of the key aspects of this is remote pair programming, where two or more programmers work on the same problem even when separated by thousands of miles. Dr. Joseph has created a pair programming scheduler that allows anyone in the world to co-ordinate pair programming opportunities for open source and non-profit projects.