By Ekpedeme Edem, PhD Candidate, Law and Legal Studies, Former TA Mentor and Helen Roumeliotis, PhD Candidate, Cultural Mediations, Former TA Mentor

The COVID-19 pandemic has modified almost every facet of life, including pedagogy, which remains a key area of focus for post-secondary education. Educators all around the world “…have, almost overnight, been asked to become both designers and tutors, using tools which few have fluently mastered” (Rapanta et al. 2020, 926). As teaching assistants (TAs), we’ve also had to pivot the way we approach student engagement and learning in an online setting. Two years later, we feel better equipped (both technologically and pedagogically) to teach in an online environment. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and innovative approaches, but here are five key aspects of being an online TA we feel are worth sharing.

1. Being an Online TA Doesn’t Mean You Are Available 24/7

Unlimited access to technology can create the illusion of connection without boundaries. The emergence of COVID-19 brought with it the “normalization” of online “24/7 work culture and the blurring of boundaries between work and private lives” (Manokha 2020, 273). As Tas, we certainly felt the pressure to be available around the clock for students. This meant checking emails frequently (especially when notifications are enabled), replying quickly and proactively trying to accommodate students within different time zones. This was simply exhausting since we also wear other hats outside of our TAship.

We often do not take into account, or even track the amount of time it takes to read and reply to emails, which should be part of our TA hours. We eventually turned off our email notifications for our mobile devices, which removed the urge to respond instantly. We also found that setting specific time slots in a day for certain emails and other administrative tasks was also incredibly helpful in setting boundaries. Research indicates that “the rise in remote work during the crisis [COVID-19] is contributing to the movement towards 24/7 work and to the collapse of the boundary between professional and private life” (Manokha 2020, 273). Working from home means the line between work and personal life is obscured because we tend to use the same devices for both work and personal time. We find ourselves toggling between work and personal commitments all throughout the day.

Self-care means knowing your limits and working within set boundaries. While it would be great to be on call 24/7, it is not realistic or healthy for TAs or any person to be connected to work at all times. Setting communication expectations with students (and the instructor) is also crucial. Letting them know how long an email response from you will take, as well as your specific office or virtual hours, is another way to ensure that you are not overwhelmed by remote working conditions. These are tips we have found very helpful as we continually navigate the online pedagogical terrain.

2. Time Management is Different in an Online Environment

The pandemic has certainly affected everyone in various ways, but with regards to online learning, “one area COVID-19 has presented enormous challenges in academia is time management” (Heath and Shine 2021, 164). The transition to online settings can shift (and did shift) the way some tasks are approached compared to a face-to-face environment. In addition to such tasks, learning how to use specific technologies and tools and adapting to the constant updates is the new “normal.” These all take time and we often don’t realize just how much time we spend on simply navigating technology.

As discussed in the section above, we often feel that we need to be available 24/7, which is not a healthy approach. There are better ways to manage our time and be effective as TAs. With respect to emails (let’s be honest, this is a HUGE part of our TAships!), having set times for emails is advisable, but we also schedule our emails in advance. Additionally, we would often get similar questions from students and would address the answer to the whole group/class to save time. Another time saving technique we implemented was creating a specific Topic in Discussions tool in the Brightspace course page with Frequently Asked Questions or a Q&A forum. This of course would need to be approved by the course instructor, but it allows you to direct all students to those available resources.

For many TAs, grading is a key part of our duties. Providing feedback is important for students’ learning experiences. Feedback can help students understand what areas they need to improve on and what areas they have grasped. We keep a document of “frequently used comments” that we can easily copy and paste into students’ work. This is also in line with recent research which has demonstrated that “using grading materials with formulaic comments not only saves time on grading, but it also helps ensure a systematic approach to evaluation of graded assessments” (Heath and Sine 2021, 169).

3. Screen Fatigue is Real

Being online all day can potentially lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, although “even before the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness was on the rise for all age-groups” (Rippé et al. 2021, 260). However, the pandemic has indeed increased levels of loneliness leading to “a lack of perceived control” (Rippé et al. 2021, 260).

Staring at a screen all day and hopping from one online conference call to another sometimes made us feel less productive. As grad students and TAs, we tend to measure success by tangible results, such as reading a certain number of pages and grading a certain number of assignments. The “intangible” results of Zoom meetings and tutorials/labs can be overwhelming when compared to face-to-face interactions. Self-reflection is key to effectiveness in an online environment: setting realistic goals and celebrating little victories can go a long way.

We also found it important and refreshing to make an active effort of going outside for a short or long walk throughout the day between screen sessions. This may sound silly and trivial, but after spending hours sitting down in front of a screen, going outside with your headphones on and listening to your favourite song really makes a difference. Finding online hobbies also helped in battling feelings of isolation such as creating online social networks, joining online social groups, hosting Netflix watch parties and reaching out for support from family/friends/colleagues/peers.

4. Student Engagement Should be Flexible and Innovative

Welcome to the world of speaking to black empty screens. One of the biggest challenges we found was being nearly the only ones to turn our cameras on in the learning environment. There are several valid reasons why students may not want to or cannot turn on their cameras, and we as educators should by no means ever put pressure on students to turn them on. That being said, there are still ways to engage students in an online setting without seeing their faces.

Effective online TAing creates “meaningful interaction between learners and engaging content, fosters interactions between and among learners, and cultivates connections between learners and themselves” (Archambault, Leary, and Rice 2022, 180). We found that on Zoom, there are several ways to encourage student participation: polling, breakout rooms, whiteboard, emojis, sharing screens and incorporating videos/audios. We’ve also noticed that when students get divided into small breakout rooms, they are more likely to turn their camera on and interact with each other as opposed to in the main room with everyone. This also allows them to foster a sense of community and get to know their peers better.

We also try to be flexible in modes of communication and delivering online content. Not every student will be in the same time zone as you and this could affect attendance, communication and performance. Students may also encounter technical issues which could impact class participation. Being aware of these possibilities and fashioning out different ways to reach everyone is crucial. This means maybe meeting a student online outside of your preset office hours or tutorial times, or having students turn in video presentations in place of synchronous presentations in order to accommodate their time zone/technical issues. Letting students know your flexibility can also go a long way in building connections and will make students feel more comfortable approaching you with any issues.

5. Creating a Professional Online Environment is Key

Being connected online can sometimes lead to a false sense of camaraderie with students. Because we are in our homes, online communication can tilt towards informality. While a sense of community is essential for any course, there are still ways to maintain virtual professionalism. The TA can set the tone for the semester to ensure that all students benefit maximally.

Early in the pandemic, educators all around the world noticed “a number of emerging issues related to student behaviour … including students’ inappropriate use of social media icons, languages and their inappropriate outfits” (O’Dea and Zhou 2022, 1). These types of behaviours and interactions can negatively impact student engagement, learning and participation (Noviyanti, Abdullah, and Tukiran 2021; O’Dea and Zhou 2022). This again comes down to communication with students. We recommend setting expectations for tutorials, labs or online interactions and clearly communicating these with them at the very beginning of the term. This can be in the form of an email/Brightspace announcement sent out early on or during the introductory session. A fun and helpful activity could be collaboratively setting expectations with students in the first session. That way, students also take ownership of the learning experience.

It’s also a good idea to be aware of the security settings of whichever video conferencing tool you are using and any updates to the platforms. For example, it was essential for us as TAs to remove the ability for students to change their display names during a Zoom session as we heard stories from other educators about display names being changed to highly inappropriate “names.” You may want to ensure that all participants are muted upon entry as it can often distract you and other students. Little things like these can go a long way while avoiding potential disruptive behaviour.

These are simply suggestions from our own experiences, and there are no right or wrong ways to be a TA! What’s more, don’t forget to seek help or guidance if you need it.