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An edtech solution that supports students and lecturers – and keeps Graduate Teaching Assistants on the payroll

  • 29 July 2020
  • By Phil Kwok

This blog was kindly contributed by Phil Kwok, Co-founder of EasyA tutoring. You can find him on LinkedIn or email at [email protected].

In a previous blog post, Bethan Cornell wrote about how we can use Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) to boost support for university students during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Rather than sacrificing them to spending cuts, Bethan suggested that in fact GTAs play an invaluable supporting role in the delivery of undergraduate modules.

While they do not lead such modules, they enable students to discuss and engage with material in a way not possible during larger lectures. Furthermore, she argued that involving GTAs would not only offer a better learning experience, but also be more cost-effective. The article offered a few novel proposals for how GTAs could be leveraged in this new world of online Zoom universities, such as leading online ‘breakout’ rooms, acting as mentors and relieving pressure on existing staff.

The problem

The issues highlighted are vital as the look and feel of the next academic year are still uncertain. I want to highlight three key concerns:

  1. Universities are considering spending cuts because of financial difficulty due in part to the risk of fewer lucrative international students matriculating next year.
  2. Despite this goal of reducing spending, students must still be supported and not left to drown in a sea of other students all packed into Zoom lectures – now, almost all universities are planning to do teaching of large groups online.
  3. In parallel to students, lecturers must not be forgotten and cannot be left to bear alone the new burdens created by this pandemic.

This article builds on the experiences learnt from providing students with support via EasyA (an on-demand Maths tutoring app) in the secondary / primary school context, and draws out how those lessons might be used to inspire new solutions in higher education institutions.

Lessons from the EasyA model

Although still a startup, EasyA has shown that a new model of learning is possible during the current pandemic and beyond in a way that inspires solutions to the three concerns above. Developed for secondary and primary school students, EasyA is a mobile app which connects students with Maths tutors on-demand. Students simply send a picture of their question during homework hours and within minutes are connected with a tutor who can help. All learning happens via text, virtual whiteboard and photos to guide students gradually towards understanding.

EasyA does not create content or set the curriculum, so rather than replace existing institutions and infrastructures, it provides support to them – in this case schools – and helps students who might otherwise be left struggling in a system plagued by overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers. It plugs the support gap left open for children doing homework but who do not have access to parents/siblings who can help. Ordinarily, such students risk getting left behind as they struggle to understand the course material.

Importantly, EasyA’s maths tutors are trained to help students improve – not simply give away the answer. All sessions are carefully reviewed against EasyA’s teaching rubric to ensure that real learning takes place. A tutor who simply does the work for a student will receive a low score and will be flagged for retraining. On top of this, parents can login to see for themselves that their children are in fact learning.

In addition, feedback collected from students and parents strongly suggests EasyA encourages children to ask questions; the quasi-anonymous format (students and tutors do not see each other by video, and are only given each other’s first names) means they are not scared to ask for help when they are struggling. Furthermore, the one-on-one sessions remove any element of pressure from onlooking peers.

Applying lessons learnt

How can we apply the lessons learnt with EasyA in practice in the university context?

The answer lies once again in GTAs. Taking EasyA’s app-based model as a starting point, it is simple enough to see how this could be applied in universities. Students would have access to the university app and, during set hours, would be able to ask questions to GTAs. The essence of the model therefore remains the same; the only difference is that primary / secondary school children would be replaced by undergraduates, and tutors replaced by GTAs. Crucially, however, GTAs (not lecturers) would be the main driving force behind the supply-side of learning support.

Turning to the three core concerns outlined at the beginning of the article, this approach presents a neat solution to them. Addressing our first concern of reducing spending, as Bethan’s article mentioned, GTAs represent a very cost-effective approach to answering teaching enquiries which the expertise of a lecturer might not be needed for while ensuring GTAs do not lose out on key income.

Our second concern (supporting students as individuals) is more nuanced. EasyA shows that by introducing set hours where students can ask questions to GTAs, it is possible to provide one-on-one individualised responses to them. Crucially, these responses come right while students are struggling with the problem – not hours or even days later. The element of anonymity will also likely be key in this context, allowing less confident students to ask questions. This is important, because in contrast to being physically in a lecture hall or on campus, Zoom-based learning lacks the spontaneity of bumping into a lecturer, or hanging around after a lecture to ask an off-the-cuff question; instead, individual Zoom calls must be scheduled in advance, setting up specific meeting times. Virtual office hours could help, but only the most proactive students tend to turn up to these. This risks leaving behind students who do not respond well to this rigidity and who are not as confident or proactive as some of their peers in reaching out to teaching staff. If this approach is implemented by more than one university or department, there would be scope for GTAs from different universities but in the same subject area supporting students across institutions.

Finally, the solution to the third concern follows naturally from the above; by deploying GTAs to dedicated office hours and presenting them as the first port of call, we reduce the amount of time lecturers themselves need to spend individually with students on queries to which they do not need to respond. Of course, if a GTA is unable to answer a question, they can offer help to those students who might not otherwise be confident in approaching lecturers with questions.

In conclusion, a lot hinges on GTAs; by leveraging them successfully using an online-first model, we can set our universities up for success come September, not only in supporting students, taking pressure off staff, but also supporting graduate students who are so often the forgotten group.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for this article. When I was head of law at my institution, we introduced a similar study support scheme involving GTAs, though not quite app-driven. At Open Days when we spoke about the scheme, parents and students were often very impressed and thought it was a great asset to the programme. The essence of the scheme was to create small study groups led by GTAs (pre-Covid days but could easily replicated into an online environment). In these very small groups students can undertake directed reading, ask questions, seek advice on research and writing skills etc. As these were held very soon after lectures, they could also seek clarifications on the materials covered. Attendance was not compulsory, and the GTAs would also hold bookable slots for the students. The concept is a good one – ensuring good education support whilst managing the resource issue as Mr Kwok alluded to.

    However, as we discovered, importantly, for the scheme to work successfully, several elements needed to be present. Given constraints on resources and sometimes buy-in from various individuals, these elements could not always be guaranteed.

    Those elements are, inter alia,
    (a) training for the GTAs (this can be significant challenge as we are expecting PhD students without much teaching experience to demonstrate not only teaching [support] competencies but emotional intelligence and empathy at an appropriate level; the one to one or small group teaching support setup requires different skill sets
    (b) managing the undergraduate students’ expectations
    (c) timetabling and rooming (nb. pre covid times)
    (d) managing an extra layer of administrative bureaucracy (UK universities have various audits and procedures etc – for example, whether module evaluation surveys be taken, formalisation of peer observation practices, etc.)
    (e) student engagement – as a voluntary scheme, the take up or the degree of engagement can be unpredictable which means that at times the GTA felt that their extensive preparation was “wasted”.

    In short, for such a scheme to work successfully that are many plumbing issues to be considered. The design or concept may be appropriate but proper consideration needs to be had about the nitty gritty issues of implementation, maintenance and evaluation.

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