Friday, May 24, 2013

Finding the Best Teaching Assistant in the World

I've received several recommendations for this article in the New Yorker (, and while its long, it is worth the read if you are interested in online, higher education. Undoubtedly, I'll return to the article from time to time.

This article alludes to the problem of staffing a course with hundreds, thousands, even tens-of-thousands of students from across the globe -- where do you find enough teaching assistants, tutors, and graders! In the case of Gregory Nagy's course on Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization,  former instructors and former students (alums) of the traditional, on-campus, Harvard course are asked to help out (, presumably as facilitators on the online courses discussion boards, but you can imagine alums in other staff roles, such as tutors and graders. The idea of using alums to actively participate in the educational mission of the university is intriguing!

Another model that has been suggested is to use the best students in a prior offering of a massive open online course (MOOC) as the TAs, tutors, and/or graders of a subsequent offering of the MOOC. If you have 10,000 students who have completed an earlier offering, then take the best performing 500 (5%) and ask them to be graders for the next offering. Not all of them will take you up on this invitation, and the number of acceptances will probably depend critically on the job you ask them to do (grader, tutor, facilitator), but calling upon this human resource of MOOC alums can be an important component in MOOC (re)design.

So, there are examples of using alums from traditional on-campus courses to staff content-similar online courses, and there are examples of using alums of online courses to staff later versions of those same courses -- what's left? As a faculty member at Vanderbilt, I want the option of staffing my on-campus courses with alums of content-similar online courses. 

The database course that I teach using Jennifer Widom's online lectures is a good example ( This course typically has about 30 students and I'm ok with one TA and one grader, if they know their stuff. But what if I could choose from among the very best students in Jennifer Widom's MOOCs on database as my TA(s) and grader(s)? Granted that as a computer science course, there is a lot of auto grading that can happen (and does happen) in a MOOC, which I can and will leverage in my on-campus offering of database, but I also want to consider the utility of human resources from MOOCs -- course alums -- in the design of my on-campus courses.

There are policy, social, and technical hindrances to using people unaffiliated with Vanderbilt as teaching assistants. Ones that I imagine offhand are

  1. privacy concerns -- before opening student work up to "outsiders", student identities would have to be protected
  2. and what of TA identities and accountability?
  3. what of compensation?

You might ask, who would want to be a grader for a course, particularly if they weren't compensated (financially)? My educated guess is that someone would want to be, those someone(s) would be very good, and a "someone" is all I need for my course of 30 students (though 2-3 would be ideal!).

What would they receive as a result of assisting in my course? They would receive a letter of recommendation from me. If there are many students who are willing to work for a relatively generic certificate at completing a MOOC, I am sure that some of the best performers, who are relevantly motivated, perhaps towards education, would happily choose to further reinforce their skills in the area of the MOOC, as my teaching assistant, for a highly personalized letter of recommendation.

I imagine there there are kinks in this approach -- kinks of policy, of culture, of a technical nature -- but the thought of finding the best TA in the world for the benefit of my on-campus students is too exciting to let go of without a lot more thought.

You might also wonder, why go the the cloud for teaching assistants -- if "its not broke, don't fix it." But sometimes the current system is broken -- some TAs don't know the material for an advanced class well enough to be an effective TA, and aren't necessarily motivated to learn at a rate that stays ahead of the students (in part because these TAs are themselves students, who are also taking classes, and who are being encouraged to get out of TAing asap and start research assistantships). And of course, some courses at some institutions won't be staffed at all under the current system, because of a graduate student shortfall. In short, there are kinks in the current, conventional approach too.

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