New Kind of Teaching Assistantship Created for the COVID Classroom

As part of its COVID-19 response plan, Rice University has created a new student staff position: Technology Teaching Assistant.

The University announced Sept. 15 that its Office of Information Technology (OIT) has hired 160 students as technology teaching assistants (TAs).

The teaching assistants are in high demand, according to the OIT Associate Vice President Diane Butler. She said that so far faculty have requested Tech TAs for approximately 270 courses. In the first round of hiring, Rice received 300 job applications and in addition to the 160 TAs, the school also hired eight students to manage the Tech TAs’ schedules.

Butler said the decision was based on understanding the limitations of her staff compared to the demand professors would have as they adapt to hybrid and distance learning this semester.

“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 job, which offers $12 an hour with a maximum load of 20 hours per week, ended up being very appealing to students.

“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 announcing the position to students.

In terms of their responsibilities, TAs are expected to set up professors’ camera and microphone, monitor the Zoom chat, and form 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.

In addition to being a popular job for students, Rice instructors – especially Luddites – are grateful for the help.

“I’m not good with electronic equipment and those things. I know essentially nothing about them,” Frank Jones, a professor of mathematics, 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.”

Before making students the first line of tech defense, Butler said all TAs received an hour of in-person instruction about the classroom equipment and three hours of online instruction about the relevant software. The online training also covered student privacy as protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, according to Butler.

Though Rice is still in the first half of its semester, Butler’s team has already begun surveying instructors to judge their happiness with the program. Thus far, OIT is seeing positive feedback.

“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.”

As with many changes borne out of COVID-19 necessity, Butler would like to continue the TA position post-pandemic.

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

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs