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New Tech TA program popular with students and professors

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Channing Wang/Thresher

By Nicole Lhuillier     9/15/20 10:16pm

To assist instructors with the classroom technology for online or hybrid courses, the Office of Information Technology has hired 160 students as technology teaching assistants. According to the OIT Associate Vice President Diane Butler, faculty have requested Tech TAs for approximately 270 courses.

In the first round of hiring, the OIT received 300 job applications from students. The OIT also hired eight students to manage the Tech TAs’ schedules, Butler said. The application period for the Tech TA program is now closed, according to the information on the web page for the position. 

“I knew my team would never be able to get to all the classrooms to assist faculty with the new, added technology [in] the rooms as my staff is very small, so we would have to supplement in some way. In talking to peers, I came up with the idea to have students help,” Butler said. “We were hoping students would be interested in assisting with this but I had no idea it would be such a popular job on campus.”



The web page for the Tech TA application indicates an hourly wage of $12 and a maximum load of 20 hours per week. Butler sent all undergraduates an invitation to apply for the part-time job in July.

“You do not need to be super technical, just comfortable with technology. The hours are flexible and the pay is good,” Butler wrote in the email.

Tech TAs’ typical responsibilities include setting up professors’ camera and microphone, monitoring the Zoom chat and forming virtual breakout rooms. They are assigned to an in-person class, an online class or an academic building where they are available to address the concerns of faculty who did not request a Tech TA, Butler said. 

“They are the first line of support for assisting with technology in classes,” Butler said.

Frank Jones, a professor of mathematics, teaches two sections of MATH 221 and two sections of MATH 423 in person. According to Jones, he is regularly assisted by one tech TA per section.

“I’m not good with electronic equipment and those things. I know essentially nothing about them,” Jones said. “But I found out in late July that there would be a technical TA for each class. And that has been just terrific because I do not have to worry about the computer or anything. All I do is teach math using the chalkboard, like I always do.”

Lovett College freshman Steven Cloud is a Tech TA on call in three buildings for 12 hours a week. On the job, he and every other Tech TA must continue to abide by the community safety guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Personally, I don’t have any concerns. I’m wearing a mask. Everyone there [in the classrooms] is wearing a mask,” Cloud said. “We try to maintain distance ... so that way we all still follow the Culture of Care guidelines, I suppose.”

Brown College sophomore Divya Wagh said she works oncall at Herman Brown Hall for two hours a week and in person for the course MSNE 413 for three hours a week. In her assigned classroom, the safety precautions include masks, spaced-out desks, reduced occupancy and a plastic shield at the professor’s podium, Wagh said.

“Even though we’re in person, I think we are all adhering to the proper protocols. So I feel safe and I feel like all the students and the professors in the classroom feel safe,” Wagh said.

Butler said the Tech TAs’ training consisted of an hour of in-person instruction about the classroom equipment and three hours of online instruction about the relevant software -- including Zoom, Canvas and Kaltura. The online training also covered student privacy as protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to Butler.

Wagh said the Tech TA training has made her more comfortable with the software used for course delivery.

“I used to [think], ‘Oh, why do we even use Zoom?’ … After the training, I learned that Zoom has a lot of cool features to facilitate learning. And I also learned a lot of things about Canvas that I didn’t know about. So I think it was a very successful training,” Wagh said.

Since the students have learned more about the software through the training, they can help resolve technical issues more efficiently, according to Wagh.

“Whenever [a Tech TA] ... has a problem that they don’t know how to solve, they’ll just text the Slack channel. And then not only do the people from [the] OIT respond, but also if another Tech TA knows the answer, they’ll text a response. And I think because of this, it’s a lot faster than, say, there were no Tech TAs, and professors had to call the OIT -- there would be so much [backlog],” Wagh said.

Based on the positive feedback from a survey Butler recently sent to instructors, she said she has already seen the effects of the program in the Rice community.

“Faculty see the students as partners in helping with dual delivery of the course. The Tech TAs have allowed the faculty to focus on the instruction and not the technology,” Butler said. “I had one Tech TA decide to take a professor’s class after assisting with it. This is wonderful as it is opening up other areas of interest for students that they might not have thought about before.”

Butler said she makes adjustments to the Tech TA program as needed and has thought about its life beyond this semester.

“I would like to continue the program into the future at some level if I can get the funding to do so,” Butler said.

Jones said he sees the program’s potential even when pandemic-related adjustments are not necessary.

“It just dawned on me, I think last week or the week before: ‘Oh, even if there were no COVID, I could still teach this way, with remote students calling in,’” Jones said.



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