A new Ecampus project has underscored the potential of graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) to add immense value to the process of reviewing and improving courses by thinking both as an instructor and as a student. Ecampus analyzed data and collaborated with partners in academic departments to identify five courses in which students were experiencing barriers to success that were not being addressed in Ecampus’ rigorous course development and support process. The academic departments also identified five pedagogically-minded and innovative GTAs to analyze and begin addressing the barriers to student success. The result is a pilot that we believe will be beneficial for the students, the GTA Fellows, and the faculty, while also providing learning opportunities for all stakeholders about how to tackle the most challenging course design problems. While we’re still in the first term of the pilot, our collaborative investigation process and emerging creative solutions have already made us very excited about the findings to come.
Determining first steps
At Oregon State Ecampus, we have a strong framework to help support and maintain course quality. Courses are carefully and thoughtfully designed through a collaborative effort between a faculty course developer who has received training in online course design best practices and an Ecampus instructional designer. The development process spans from the two term initial design and build period, where we ensure courses meet our set of Ecampus Essentials, to iterative first term adjustments, to support for continued lifetime maintenance, to formal course “refreshes” every 3-5 years. Finally, many of our courses are also submitted for and earn Quality Matters certification, which is an important indicator of quality based on research-based standards. This rigorous and supportive development process aims to make sure the course continues to stay relevant, accessible, and effective for learners.
But, in spite of all this careful planning, development, review, and maintenance, what is the appropriate response when courses have recently come through this rigorous and comprehensive design process, faculty have been trained in best practices for teaching online, and students are still encountering barriers to success in the course?
We recently launched a new pilot project to tackle this question head-on. As a starting point, and using a few basic indicators of student persistence, retention, and success in our courses — such as the DFWU rate, or a rate at which students receive grades of D, F, W (withdrawal), or U (unsatisfactory) — we created an initial list of courses across our online offerings where students were least successful in passing or completing. From this list, we identified which courses had been redesigned within the last five years (to rule out our standard redevelopment process as a solution to increasing student success). The latter group of courses underwent some additional review by our team to identify if there were any stand-out issues that could be easily resolved.
What we arrived at was a short-list of courses that had higher than usual DFWU rates and were redesigned recently. In these courses, we knew that something else was going on beneath the surface; the underlying problem was neither an obvious issue with design or facilitation techniques. Many of the courses on this short-list are problematic not for a high rate of D/F/U grades at the end of the term, but rather for a high rate of W (withdrawal) grades. Our Ecampus student population is largely comprised of non-traditional students who have a different set of needs than our more traditional on-campus students, namely in that they need flexibility to balance their busy out-of-school lives while also meeting their educational goals; so, through this pilot, we wanted to find an effective way to determine what could be changed to better support Ecampus students in staying in (and succeeding in) these courses that were particularly challenging for reasons we could not easily identify.
Designing the pilot
With these course profiles compiled, we reached out to five department partners to assess their interest in collaborating on a project to further review and revise a course (or, in some cases, a sequence of courses). We proposed to fund a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) for three consecutive quarters to evaluate and then to propose and implement innovative interventions in these targeted courses with an eye toward increasing online student success. In general, pilots are following the below schedule:
- Quarter 1: the GTA is an active observer of the course(s), and reviews previous sections’ data to look for patterns in obstacles that students might face; in collaboration with the faculty course lead and Ecampus staff, the GTA then proposes a first set of interventions for quarter 2; IRB approval of research is confirmed if necessary for design of interventions and/or for desire for possible future publication.
- Quarter 2: the GTA continues to be an active observer in the course(s) and helps to implement the first set of interventions; in collaboration with the faculty course lead and Ecampus staff, the GTA then proposes new or refined interventions for quarter 3.
- Quarter 3: the GTA continues to be an active observer in the course(s) and helps the instructor to implement the new or refined interventions; data reporting is wrapped up and a campus presentation is arranged.
Note that, across the three quarters, the GTA does not undertake the traditional tasks associated with a teaching assistant in an online course, such as grading assignments, responding to student questions, holding virtual office hours, etc., modeling our pilot on fellowship programs such as Duke University’s Bass Digital Education Fellowships. Rather, all stakeholders agreed to allow the GTA to not be constrained by these time-consuming tasks and focus their efforts instead on observational work and then planning and implementing interventions. The instructors assigned to these courses continue to take on their regular duties of interacting with and assessing students.
The unique advantage of GTAs
With our five unique pilots underway as of this summer, it has already become clear that the key to this pilot is the unique positioning of the GTA to tackle these student success problems from both the faculty and student perspectives. At Oregon State, GTAs regularly serve as teaching assistants or instructors of record in on-campus, hybrid, and online courses, so our GTAs have come to these pilot projects with prior teaching experience (and, often, with some training in pedagogy and course design). Yet, our pilot program GTAs are also still students themselves, so they are particularly attuned to the student experience as they follow and track current and upcoming groups of students working through these courses.
Our pilot will also benefit from the fact that these GTAs have a strong interest in pedagogy and in their own professional development as instructors. With that in mind, we have worked to structure some of the individualized goals of each pilot to reflect how we can help the GTA get the most value out of this opportunity (such as through a campus presentation, a published paper when we have results, or connecting with Ecampus leaders as possible references for job applications). The final name for our pilot – GTA Innovations for Student Success Fellowship – is crafted both to reflect the central goals of the pilot (student success) and to call out the important and unique work that GTAs are doing as fellows.
Looking forward (to sharing innovative interventions and results)
We are still in the very early stages of each of these pilots, so while we don’t yet have any results to share, the deep engagement of our stakeholders in this process has been heartening, and wonderful plans are in the works for the first sets of interventions to be implemented this fall. We are also so pleased to see the support behind allowing this group of GTAs inspire innovative online teaching within their home departments, and the willingness of the faculty who teach the courses under review to think collaboratively and differently about the creative ways we can support their online students.
As part of their pilot work, we will encourage these GTAs to contribute to the blog and share their insights and takeaways along the way. What they learn about how to support student needs in these particularly challenging courses and course sequences, learning design, teaching methods that better motivate disengaged learners, etc. will no doubt be useful to Ecampus stakeholders across the university and beyond. Stay tuned for more!