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Student engagement, technology issues: STEM TA’s discuss challenges of online education

Advantages in communication, participation also appreciated
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

As most undergraduate courses are being taught online for fall 2020, with hybrid courses moving entirely online in the Faculty of Arts & Science, most teaching assistants (TAs) are teaching online, many of them for the first time. This transition ushered in a myriad of challenges for TAs, some of whom initially lacked the equipment or technological knowledge necessary for online teaching.

Online teaching has come with a specific set of challenges for TAs teaching in STEM fields. Many STEM undergraduate classes have thousands of students, so 30-person tutorials are especially important for fostering collaboration and communication amongst students.

The Varsity spoke to three TAs in STEM fields about these obstacles, as well as some advantages, of teaching online during the pandemic.

Student engagement

Tresa LeBlanc-Doucet, a fourth-year math and psychology major working as a math TA, told The Varsity that soliciting student engagement is more difficult when students can simply turn off their camera if they don’t want to participate. “When you’re in a real life classroom, you can’t turn off your video, you can’t mute yourself, but online, you can pretty much refuse to participate,” she said.

Alex Rodriguez, who is getting his master’s degree in math and is working as a math TA, shared Doucet’s concerns about engagement. In an interview with The Varsity, he said that since he began teaching online, he’s had trouble shaping his tutorials around his students’ needs. “In person, there’s a lot of feedback I get from being able to see people’s faces and… being able to see how people react,” Rodriguez said.

“On Zoom, everyone has their cameras off,” he continued. “So it’s sort of a challenge understanding where everyone is… In person, you sort of know your students after a while… Online, it’s like a brick wall. It’s just awkward, and I don’t know how to address the awkwardness.”

Assaf Bar-Natan, a fourth-year math PhD student, works as a lead writing TA in the Writing-Integrated Teaching program and trains STEM TAs on how to foster student engagement when teaching online. In an interview with The Varsity, he confirmed that student engagement over Zoom has been a big problem for many TAs. He advised TAs to set the example for the class: “If you don’t have a camera, your students aren’t going to have a camera.”

Platform issues

Rodriguez has also experienced drawbacks to an online platform. “In person, I have four chalkboards, so I can spread things out and allow people time to take notes,” he said. However, on Zoom, “it’s really hard to know if… I’m moving through things too fast.”