Campus collaboration and student contribution key to online academic term

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

By Judy Lee

When the decision to deliver an online Spring 2020 term was made, units across campus stepped up to find innovative and collaborative approaches to this unique term. One resource was quickly identified as key: student talent. A team of 320 co-op students was hired by the University of Waterloo, trained centrally, and then deployed to faculties and academic support units to help with the development and delivery of new online academic courses.

Students have been hugely valuable in accelerating the otherwise very slow process of moving to an online format,” says Peter Wood, Assistant Dean of Online Learning, Mathematics Business and Accounting. These co-op students are able to provide great feedback and suggestions on what students might appreciate or need in an online environment. Many faculty members have expressed relief to have a helping hand during this transition.

The majority of these senior online learning assistants (SOLAs) and online learning assistants (OLAs) are funded in part by the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) with the Office of the Provost covering the remainder of the hiring cost. The students are focused on two main areas: instructional support and initiatives for social connectedness and engagement.

Instructional support

The SOLAs and OLAs take on tasks that reflect the tremendous amount of additional design needed to move courses online. They help instructors promote learning in a remote environment in many ways, including:

  • researching publicly available materials for case-based learning activities,
  • managing tutorials and seminars in a virtual context,
  • setting up assignments and quizzes on LEARN— a web-based learning management system,
  • transcribing videos and converting handwritten notes to web formats for better accessibility, and
  • creating weekly newsletter that spotlights topics related to remote teaching best practices, tips, and resources for internal distribution

These new hires provide feedback that would not otherwise be available. They help instructors to “screen” and “pilot” materials in an online delivery model and provide their insight from a student perspective. “We have worked very hard as a team to ensure that professors currently teaching have what they need to be successful, and to make any necessary improvements,” says Matthew Olsen, a SOLA currently working in the Department of English. “This includes conducting very thorough and critical reviews of course content and design, and subsequently suggesting positive changes, which my team then helps to implement. Some OLAs have also conducted student surveys as a way to collect feedback on current course delivery.With help setting up the online course shell, instructors can spend more time providing timely assessments to students.

SOLAs and OLAs are also producing new digital assets to be used within a course in replacement of an in-class activity. “They are helping us to create content for kinesiology labs by taking photos and videos of themselves completing tasks (ex. squatting, walking, jumping) that our students would normally do during in-person labs,” says Tamara Maciel, Program Director, School of Anatomy; Teaching Fellow, Kinesiology.

 “Students will be able to analyze these images and videos to complete their laboratory assignments. I know AHS greatly appreciates these online learning assistants and they are helping to strengthen the quality of our course offers.”

Social connectedness and engagement

The co-op students are also developing new ways to help students feel connected to their peers and their courses, an element that is highly important when delivering exclusively online material.

“Social connectedness is considered one of the most important jobs of the senior students in the faculty,” says Marcel Pinheiro, Continuing Lecturer, Biology. “As everyone is dealing with significant changes to daily lives, and lacking routine human connection, this is one way to at least create a semblance of normalcy in our students this summer.”  

The SOLAs and OLAs work with department- and faculty-level social media teams to work on student-led outreach efforts, including "a day in the life" takeovers, social media wellness challenges and student engagement activities. They also organize events via social media, such as Netflix viewing parties and virtual trivia nights. 

Another way they are helping out is by reviewing student engagement with online courses. For example, these co-op students can create detailed LEARN reports of when a student accessed content or completed a particular activity. “These reports can help instructors identify students who are not engaged with their course and then reach out to the students to determine the reasons,” says Ajoy Opal, Associate Dean of Teaching, Engineering. “The co-op students are well-versed with LEARN and can generate these reports for use by the instructors.”

“This initiative could not have happened without the support of the Provost, faculties and academic units across campus,” says Norah McRae, associate provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education. “Many SOLAs are given the opportunity to step into a managerial role. Under their guidance, our students are having a valuable learning experience and contributing in a meaningful way to our campus.” With the positive response across campus, a similar initiative for the Fall 2020 term will be moving forward.