Before the start of the second run of English Composition I: Achieving Expertise, the Duke staff went on the hunt for students from the first offering of the course who would be good candidates for the volunteer position of Community Teaching Assistant (CTA). With the help of analytics from Coursera, we invited 25 students who had a high number of forum posts and a top GPA. Thirteen students volunteered to monitor the discussion forums and provide technical and content support for the 89,000 students who signed up.
Their efforts were no less than extraordinary. Of the 10 CTAs who ended up being active in the forums, the lowest number of posts was 50. The majority hit the 100 – 200 range and two superstars each posted about 1000 times in the forums. In a course that relies on peer feedback to improve academic writing, this level of engagement with students’ work was a key to the success of the course.
The volunteers agreed to participate primarily because they enjoyed the original course, but many mentioned that they have a career in which writing plays an important role. The experience as a TA would support their work, for example, as a copy editor or writing instructor. Another theme in applications was a desire to give back to a course that helped improve their writing. As Erica L. explains, “I believe that by becoming a Community TA, I can help keep this course a reality for all those students out there.”
So far, five other Duke courses in their second or third runs on Coursera have used CTAs. Across all of the classes, CTAs have been invaluable in providing technical assistance and providing clarification about the course logistics. In addition, CTAs are often the first defense when it comes to content questions. In Ronen Plesser’s Introduction to Astronomy course, two TAs especially provided math tutoring and guidance to students trying to complete the homework sets. Another advantage for courses with CTAs is they are in different timezones and catch errors more quickly than the course staff here at Duke could. Being a TA is a badge of honor for many and some return for future iterations of courses. Three of the original TAs will be joining in the fourth run of Introductory Human Physiology this fall.
It is not only the Duke staff involved in Coursera courses that are thankful for the CTAs. The students in all of the courses recognize their hard work. As one student comments, “CTAs like yourself are very busy. I appreciate it when one comments on a question in a thread.” The work is often challenging for CTAs who have full-time jobs or are students, yet they spend up to three months monitoring the forums. Rosalie C. from English Composition explains,
Trying to help students navigate the course as well as to help them with the academic aspects of the course was a great and exhausting experience. It was also rewarding to be of real help. As a CTA, everything you say in the forums is taken very seriously. It teaches you to be careful of your wording. However, when a student thanks you, it makes you feel really good.
Elise Mueller is the consultant for the language departments at Duke. Her goal is to help instructors explore the best ways to support language acquisition through technology. As a member of Sakai group, Elise leads training sessions, troubleshoots technical issues, and develops documentation of the support site. More recently, she has assisted faculty with the planning and development of Coursera courses. Her interests include using multimedia in the classroom, emerging models of higher education and e-learning, and experiential learning.