Graduate Students Lend a Helping Hand With Pandemic-Era Remote Learning

Two Drexel graduate students speak on their experience participating in the Graduate College’s Remote Course Facilitator program, in which they aid faculty and students in the remote learning environment and gain valuable contacts and insight along the way.

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In adapting to teaching remotely starting this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Drexel University faculty had to be innovative, nimble and open to change. But they also had help.

The Remote Course Facilitator (RCF) program was established by the Graduate College in spring with support from the Office of the Provost and Remote Teaching Task Force. Remote Course Facilitators (RCFs) are graduate students who support faculty with the technical and administrative aspects of teaching in a fully remote or hybrid format, and help support the remote teaching and learning environment in which active engagement is critical for a successful student experience.

Plus, there are benefits to graduate students as well. Learn about the experiences of two RCFs in the Q&A below and how the RCF program has benefitted faculty, students learning remotely, and the graduate students themselves as an opportunity to learn, network and gain valuable insights.

The Respondents:

·      Alia Ammar, PhD candidate in educational leadership and learning technologies with the School of Education

·      Saurajyoti Kar, PhD student in environmental engineering with the College of Engineering

Q: How do you feel the RCF program has benefited faculty utilizing the resource, students in the remote learning environment, and graduate students serving as RCFs?

Ammar: I believe it has generally been a positive addition for students in remote learning environments. Being there and attending weekly sessions, I was able to help students navigate some of the pieces of remote learning that they were not familiar with in the past. The students from the English Literature course that I’m currently facilitating are more comfortable with the tech pieces, so I’ve been working with the instructor to expand some more on the tools available for them. For example, for their presentations, I introduced them to VoiceThread and recorded a mini tutorial for them since they were using it, some for the first time, for their author presentations.

The two faculty members I’ve worked with as a RCF have been very open about how grateful and appreciative they are of having the opportunity to work with me. Both have noted how it’s helped them stay on task and not feel stressed about the technical aspects they’re less familiar with in case of troubleshooting.

When we were using a tech tool they weren’t familiar with, we scheduled a meeting before class to practice and go through things together to feel more comfortable, whether it was creating breakout groups on Zoom or using VoiceThread. In my experience, this is successful because when it’s time to start using that technology, faculty are more confident, and I’m there for backup to troubleshoot any issues that arise. 

As a graduate student, I feel like I’ve benefited a lot from the RCF program. Being a RCF allowed me to expand on my experiences as a TA and adjunct instructor. It also allowed me to share my experience with faculty who aren’t as comfortable or familiar with online and/or remote teaching. Additionally, it allowed me to implement some of the things I’ve learned in the Essentials of Online Learning and the Advanced Pedagogy & Instructional Design courses offered by the Online Learning Coucil (OLC).

Kar: I feel the RCF program has helped the teachers, students, and RCFs in an effective manner. With the current remote learning environment, various additional online housekeeping needs have arisen, which can cause an additional challenge for faculty. The graduate student RCFs who have experience with the online learning setting can help faculty by sharing the additional responsibility, while faculty can focus on the lectures and respond to students' questions. Similarly, RCFs are able to help students facing technical issues while attending the class.

As a simple example: in a Zoom-based online classroom, if students are working in breakout rooms while faculty are attending to questions of students in a breakout room, and meanwhile, a student had to rejoin Zoom because of technical issues, the RCF can re-allocate the student back to the respective breakout room.

Finally, it is important to mention, the RCF program provides a great opportunity for graduate students to network with other faculty members while practicing their online learning skills. Additionally, the RCF fund financially helps graduate students who are already feeling somewhat strained under current stagnant global economic circumstances.

Q: How has your experience as a RCF been?

Ammar: My experience has been phenomenal so far and I’m very much looking forward to another quarter in the position. My first RCF assignment was a little intense because it was a larger group than I’m used to in education, and it was a subject I have no experience in, so I was a bit concerned at first.

However, I quickly realized that I didn’t need to be familiar with the content to help facilitate the class. I’m also incredibly grateful that the faculty members I’ve been paired with thus far have been extremely open to trying new things to make their lectures and classes more accessible and engaging to students. It felt like a true partnership, one where everyone wins.

Kar: The RCF experience has helped me learn about the Fulbright Program and learn about one Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering (CAEE) departmental undergraduate class.

Getting to know new faculty members and staff has helped me grow my professional network while practicing the online teaching skills by assisting them during class time. In certain weeks, it becomes difficult to manage the schedule between primary teaching assistant responsibilities, research, and RCF responsibilities, but I have enjoyed being busy while able to contribute the additional help.

Being a RCF in the summer quarter and current fall quarter, I feel confident to be able to conduct online classes, and look forward to doing that in my future career.

Q: What do you feel your biggest contribution(s) as a RCF have been?

Ammar: I feel that my most significant contribution as a RCF has been helping faculty feel comfortable with technological tools and aspects that they weren’t necessarily familiar with and were overwhelmed with the idea of feeling the need to master new tools. This is particularly significant since all this happened during a time when we were all trying to adjust to the sudden changes in life due to COVID-19, and being able to support faculty and students during this time is essential.

Switching from in-person teaching to remote teaching is a significant change that is incredibly daunting. If a faculty member isn’t comfortable with that, it is likely to translate into a negative experience for students. I believe that to be a successful RCF, you have to be able to stay calm and help faculty navigate through new experiences in a way that isn’t overwhelming during an already stressful time. After that, the pieces sort of fall into place because the RCF-faculty-student relationship is based on trust and mutual respect.

Kar: My biggest contribution as a RCF has been to assist class faculty and students with technical tasks while teachers and students focus on the learning goals.

Q: In what ways has your experience translated back to or contributed to your graduate academic program or field of study?

Ammar: My graduate academic program [and the RCF program are] directly related. I finished my coursework in the spring of 2019, so while being a RCF hasn’t directly helped me with my graduate program, it has provided me with the opportunity to practice some of the things I have learned. This is not limited to my classes and research but also expands to the various professional development courses and sessions that I participated in. It’s also always great to observe the different ways people teach and how they engage their students and that is relevant to my field of study.

Kar: The experience has broadened my knowledge of two important undergraduate programs, as well as helped me know new faculties and staff in person. I now have a few more people to reach out to for help in times of much-needed support. Being able to practice online teaching assistance skills has helped me perform my primary teaching assistant responsibilities more efficiently.

Q: What have you learned or gained from bi-weekly sessions for TAs and RCFs?

Ammar: The bi-weekly sessions for TAs and RCFs were one of the highlights of being a RCF. Other than the planned professional development sessions, getting to interact with other TAs and RCFs was great. I serve as a TA in the School of Education and as an RCF through the Graduate College. I believe this puts me in a unique position, particularly due to my background in education and my years of teaching experience. These sessions fostered a sense of community that was incredibly helpful and supportive. I learned a lot from my peers, the facilitators, and our guest speakers. All this led to me seek out more professional development so that I can stay up-to-date with the various technologies but also with the different accessibility elements to ensure inclusivity. 

Kar: I joined a few of the initial bi-weekly sessions and they were helpful in learning some new concepts on how to increase student engagement in a virtual learning environment, key tools in BBLearn, and of course, the boundaries of RCF responsibilities.

Q: How does serving as a RCF differ from being a TA?

Ammar: The most significant difference for me when it comes to serving as a RCF and a TA is that as a RCF, I’m not grading student work and don’t have to necessarily be familiar with the course content to be a successful RCF. I do approach them both the same way in that I meet with the instructor or communicate via email to make sure I’m aware of the lesson plan or agenda, I monitor attendance and participation, and handle communication relating to Zoom schedules. Both as an RCF and a TA, I often take time before classes to play around with the new tool, so I can troubleshoot if necessary. I also make sure the instructor is comfortable with any new tool being used and schedule practice sessions when required.

Kar: The RCF responsibility does not require performing grading, assisting faculty with content preparation, or answering subject questions for students — those of which are primary responsibilities in a TA role. However, the RCF role can be seen as a subset of the TA role, as it includes actively helping during the course sessions online while keeping track of regular activities, for example: recording class, posting the zoom record link after class, maintaining students' group list break out rooms, etc.

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

Ammar: I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a dynamic program. I developed and maintained positive relationships with the faculty I worked with and have learned so much from them and the program overall.

I firmly believe in supporting others and giving back to the various communities I’m a part of and I appreciate the work the Graduate College has done with this program and how open and welcoming they are. I believe this program has been a phenomenal way for me to give back to the Drexel community at large.

Graduate students interested in the RCF program for winter term can review information and sign up here. Faculty interested in adding a RCF to their remote course(s) for winter term can request one here.