It ain’t the MOOCs, it’s the channel

By Gregor Kiczales posted on January 20th, 2014

Much of the recent discussion about learning innovation in higher education is focused on MOOCs.

But there’s a more fundamental force at play, which is the emergence of the internet as a new channel between learners and educators. This shift to the internet as a channel ‐ with the resulting disintermediation, unbundling and re-consolidation ‐ is what has been so significant for media markets. Colleges and universities have had a nearly complete lock on that channel, but the internet is sure to at the very least supplement that.

MOOCs are one clear result of this channel shift; the internet allows MOOC developers to reach communities of learners without having to meet in a physical campus location. In many cases the university still plays a role in MOOCs, but its role is significantly different than for residential credit-seeking learners. But, what else could move to that channel? Put another way, of all the value/services/experiences a university offers learners, which could most productively move to use the internet as a channel?

One possibility is teaching assistant (TA) office hours. TA hours provide an opportunity for students to get help with the course material, work through practice problems, get an explanation of grading etc. TA hours play a big role in many courses, and students report that high quality TA hours make a big difference in terms of their success in a course.

But a longstanding problem with TA  hours is how to schedule them. Scheduling them in “normal daytime hours” is typical, but the fact is that many students study at night and on weekends, and they would like to get help then. (Many TAs would also like to work then.) On the other hand scheduling night and weekend TA hours is not much help to students who live far from campus. Another problem is accurately predicting the demand for TA hours. We know there will be a burst in demand right before exams, but at other times in the term it is difficult to predict how many students will show up and how many TAs should be scheduled.

But if TA hours can be moved online the requirement that the TA and the student be in the same place disappears. Tools like Skype or Google Hangouts allow a student and TA to see and hear each other and also use screen sharing when that is appropriate. In fact, Google Hangouts are already used in many Coursera MOOCs. Moving the help session online means the TA and the student can both be anywhere they want, including at home. Right away this reduces constraints on when the hours are scheduled; it is easy to schedule them at night. It can also make scheduling more flexible. TAs could perhaps be on-call, when a student logs in to ask for help an on-call TA can be contacted if needed.

Would such TA hours be better than what we offer today?  Clearly there would be somewhat less of a personal touch to them. Students who are in need of emotional support from TAs are more likely to get that in face-to-face TA hours.  On the other hand there would be much greater flexibility in terms of scheduling. Partly it depends on whether a student would rather take an early bus home and talk to a TA at 10pm in the comfort of their own home, or meet the TA face-to-face at 4pm and then go home later.  But there are other ways online hours might be better. In a course that involves any kind of online work, the ability of a TA to see the student’s screen and mark on it while they are talking could be very valuable. In a help session where the TA is reviewing material for a group of students the ability of each student to hear  clearly (and possibly replay portions) could be very valuable. The fact that students could ask questions in situ, right there when they are doing the work rather than waiting till the next day, could  be very valuable.

What about the sense of community that arises now when students work together in co-located TA hours? I can still remember the computer room I used to work in when doing computer science assignments in university. I even remember some of the TAs who were available to help us there; as well as a not entirely pleasant odour. For better and for worse that was part of the learning experience for me. Will the sense of community be lost if TA hours are in a virtual place rather than a physical one, or will students be able to re-construct a sense of community online. Having reached the 50+ mark, I’m not sure my own intuitions are up too predicting how today’s students would experience online TA hours.

Another concern about online TA hours is that an outside player could step in to provide them. When the internet becomes the channel the barrier to entry for new players is greatly reduced. These players might hire dedicated staff, or they might provide  a marketplace where students and prospective TAs offering help can meet. The new Helpouts by Google, which allows people to list expertise they provide online and collect revenue for answering questions could easily evolve into this kind of service. One concern about outside services is the helpers may “cough up the answer” too readily, rather than helping the student learn from the problem. This danger already exists when students go to sites like Reddit to ask for help with homework; but the internet culture already  knows how to handle this, as this great posting about a UBC Okanogan student on Reddit shows.

But what might be lost if TA hours aren’t even with TAs from the same university? In a recent blog post, Stephen Toope argues in part that incorporating online education offerings risks making residential learning experiences generic, and causing students to lose their sense of belonging to a particular place of learning. He is talking about MOOCs, but his arguments probably apply to the TA help sessions as well. They may be even more true of TA help sessions, because TAs do a lot more than answer specific questions. Sometimes the most important thing a TA can say to a student who is struggling is “I remember that week of the course, it was hard for me too”. But that’s not necessarily something a more generic online TA can say, they may not have taken the course. They may not even be a student. And generic online TA can’t talk about the Canucks either (not that doing so would help cheer the student up).

I suspect we’ll have some answers and even more questions about online TA hours soon. The technology to move at least part of some course’s TA hours online already works, and the B line isn’t getting any less crowded. At least some students and TAs are going to want to take advantage of the internet to work with each other remotely. Beyond that Google Helpouts and other services are already stepping into this space. Stay tuned.


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Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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