Many of the principles of effective teaching in a traditional university classroom also apply to online teaching. Here at the University of Waterloo, online courses use LEARN as the learning management system. In LEARN, students may review course content, communicate with peers and their instructor, participate in discussions, take quizzes and submit assignments.
University of Waterloo online courses are primarily asynchronous. Asynchronous courses have no set class times. Students choose their preferred days and times to work on the course. There are still fixed deadlines. Like in-class courses, students need to work consistently throughout the term and meet course deadlines.
Waterloo professors work with the Centre for Extended Learning (CEL) for approximately eight months to create an online course. If you are curious about course development and our user experience design for learning (UXDL) framework, please visit the CEL UXDL Honeycomb.
Roles of Online TAs
The instructor may ask you to do any of the following as an online TA:
- Write and post regular announcements
- Create student groups
- Reach out to students who are absent or missing assignments
- Post replies and moderate online discussions
- Review discussions and/or dropbox submissions, provide feedback and submit grades
- Use a third-party tool (Piazza, PebblePad, etc.)
- Host TA office hours online
Meet with your online instructor early on to ensure you have TA access to the course in LEARN. Find out what is expected of you and be sure you are comfortable using the corresponding LEARN tools.
Online TA Checklist: Questions to Ask
As an online TA, you may be asked to grade assignments, moderate discussions, and send announcements. These tasks all incorporate digital tools. It is important to be familiar with the core functions of LEARN and any third-party tools you are asked to use. Consider asking these key questions to clarify your responsibilities:
- Discussions: how frequently do I need to monitor discussions and make posts? Will I create new discussions?
- Quizzes: do I need to grade any of the quizzes or are they fully automated?
- Dropbox: will I be grading dropbox items and providing feedback?
- Content: do I need to review any content? Any content edits should only be done upon direction of the instructor and often in collaboration with CEL.
- Other: are there any third-party tools or additional platforms (i.e., Mobius or Contensis) used in this course? If yes, how do I need to use them?
- Entering grades: where do I enter grades? Note: most grades are entered in the tool itself (quiz, discussion, drobox) and some are entered directly in the grade section.
- Feedback: what are the expectations regarding personalized feedback? What are examples of good quality feedback?
- Rubrics: are rubrics used in this course? Are rubrics embedded in different tools?
Teaching Tips for Online TAs
Prepare for the Term and Schedule Your Time
Remember, all content (including assignment information, lectures and discussion boards) are developed and set up in LEARN in advance. At the start of term, take time to review them. Set aside regular time to complete your TA roles. Align this schedule with the frequency you need to be logging in (daily, every other day) and potential peak marking times. Learn the course schedule so you know what students should be doing each week. Advise students to set aside at least 10 hours per week to work on their online course.
Establish Social Presence by Communicating Clearly and Promptly
In the syllabus section, outline how students can contact you and a timeframe of when they can expect your response. With the instructor’s permission, use the announcements to communicate with the whole class. Announcements may include new or changing information regarding weekly updates, upcoming due dates, etc.
The “Ask the Instructor or TA” discussion board is set up in most online courses. Be sure to highlight this discussion board in announcements. This is the ideal location for students to ask general questions about course content or assessments. By encouraging students to use this forum, the whole class benefits from your answers and it reduces your email volume. Emails are more suited for private concerns such as accommodations or grades.
Make every effort to reply to emails or the “Ask the Instructor or TA” discussion within 24-48 hours during weekdays. If you plan to be away during the week, let the instructor know ahead of time.
Promote Meaningful Discussions
Discussions promote interaction and demonstrate social presence. Facilitate discussions by asking good questions, making connections, and responding to a variety of students.
- Ask for clarification when needed: I’m unclear about your point X. Can you elaborate?
- Challenge students by probing assumptions: Can you connect this view to the readings?
- Ask for alternate views or specific examples: What is another viable solution to Y issue?
Provide High Quality Feedback Throughout the Term
Ask your course instructor about the expectations regarding personalized feedback for the course assessments and what high quality feedback looks like. Let students know in advance when and where to access feedback. Remember to adapt your schedule to accommodate for peak marking times and to meet promised timelines.
Refer Students to Additional Supports
When students require technical assistance with LEARN, direct them first to the "Help" link located in the LEARN environment. If students continue to have technical problems with LEARN, they should be directed to CEL’s technical support at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consider these additional supports for other concerns:
- Personal academic concerns: contact the course instructor
- Administrative questions (fees, withdrawing): email@example.com
- Academic accommodation: AccessAbility Services
- Student success (study skills, tutoring): Student Success Office
- Mental health support: Campus Wellness
Training and Recommended Resources
Using LEARN will likely be an important part of your role as a TA. Consider these resources:
- Getting Started in LEARN: in-person, interactive workshop offered at the beginning of each term: See the CTE Events Page
- LEARN Help Resources for Teaching Assistants: resource providing step-by-step guidance on how to do common LEARN tasks such as entering grades and managing a discussion forum
- Teaching Online: Basic Skills for TAs – an online module developed by the Centre for Extended Learning
- Online self-paced modules on online and blended teaching developed by Carleton University
Whiteside, A., Dikkers, A., and Lewis, S. (2014). The power of social presence for learning. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/5/the-power-of-social-presence-for-learning
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Being a TA in Online Courses. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.