Behind the scenes of building online courses: Online learning assistants help professors get their courses online

Friday, June 25, 2021

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and courses shifted to the online environment, Professor John Johnston from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences faced a monumental task. 

John Johnston looking at a large rock with a hand lens.Building new online courses, especially in the geosciences where it involves hands-on lab and field training, is not a simple matter of turning on a video and lecturing in front of a camera. 

There are also time-consuming tasks such as programming tasks and deadlines in the course calendar, setting up online groups, creating and moderating message boards, creating video subtitles for the course content, programming online quizzes and exams, recording, editing and uploading video content, among the many other aspects of making an online course function smoothly. 

Fortunately, for Johnston and many other instructors, there was help.  The University of Waterloo created brand new positions, online learning assistants (OLAs), precisely for the behind the scenes tasks involved in transitioning to online courses. 

Minghan Han, a fourth-year student in Earth and Environmental Sciences was one them. As an OLA, he was helping Johnston and other Faculty of Science professors.  

Over the past 4 terms, 175 OLAs were employed within the Faculty of Science who assisted 66 professors with help from Science Teaching Fellows. Throughout the University of Waterloo, more than 300 OLA positions were created and funded through the federal government’s Student Work Placement Program (SWPP), with matching contributions from the University. 

“We help create new online content, support instructors in delivering course learning outcomes, including assignments, discussion and presentation,” Han says. “We also complete other duties assigned by faculties member or other support staff. For example, once a professor is finished recording the video, I have to check the subtitles, because in earth science, there is a lot of professional vocabulary that needs to be correct.” 

It is a behind-the-scenes job. Han’s work is largely invisible to the students, yet it is invaluable in ensuring the students are as engaged as possible in the online courses. 

That was especially important in earth sciences, a discipline that normally relies heavily on hands-on training. “We lick and scratch and test rocks,” says Johnston. “There are many components in our science where you need that hands-on experience to prepare for the professional field of the geosciences.” 
 
Han is from China and became instrumental in ensuring the courses delivered to fellow Chinese students would be easy for them to follow. When Han had to return to China in the midst of the pandemic, he was also able to continue helping the Waterloo professors even from China.  

Minghan Han working on two laptops. Han says he is grateful for the support he received from Johnston and other professors.  “This has been a very precious opportunity for me.” 

For professors who are crunched for time, the OLAs made the online course delivery possible, Johnston says. The OLAs also provided valuable suggestions for improving the online course delivery. 
 
Han says he was trained through the Waterloo Professional Development Program in the use of the relevant technology such as the LEARN course building tool. Becoming an online learning assistant opened up a world of new skills. “How to prioritize multiple tasks and finish them at a given time is one of the great things I have learned from this position.”  

The OLAs also often helped each other as teammates. Johnston says that in the OLAs, he saw the initiative and drive of a younger generation, which makes him hopeful for the future. “It’s going to be a bumpy future with a lot of challenges, so to see young people problem-solving, communicating and helping each other is wonderful. 

“On behalf of all the instructors, I want to send out a big heartfelt thank you to all of the OLA’s, for helping improve classes for their fellow classmates.”