Tech TAs helped faculty navigate remote teaching technology during pandemic

Ray Schmitt
July 01, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In March 2020, Bryan Wang, associate teaching professor in biology at Penn State Berks, found himself in unexpected territory alongside hundreds of other Penn State faculty. The onset of a global pandemic meant nearly everything about how they performed their jobs changed almost overnight.

"Before the pandemic, I taught exclusively face-to-face," said Wang. "I was familiar with and used [Canvas] in all my classes, but during spring break 2020, I had my first lesson on how to run Zoom."

On March 11, 2020, Penn State announced that all classes would be delivered remotely upon the conclusion of spring break. The implications of that decision meant, among other things, that technology would be used at a greater scale than it ever had before to deliver a Penn State education.

Jennifer Sparrow is the associate vice president for Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) at Penn State and the University’s deputy chief information officer. Her team at TLT typically works with faculty to combine new and emerging technology with sound pedagogy to improve the teaching and learning experience. However, their mindset needed to shift from innovating with smaller numbers of faculty to innovating at scale to support hundreds of thousands of Penn Staters, from faculty to students to staff, through virtual conferencing technology to handle day-to-day work. One particular need the team identified related to faculty like Wang, who had zero or limited experience teaching online.

A conversation with a former TLT Faculty Fellow and teaching professor of sociology, Sam Richards, gave Sparrow the idea for a brand-new service that could fill such a need. The service came to be called Tech TAs.

"When we first made the shift to remote learning, [Sam told me] about what he was doing for his SOC119 course," said Sparrow. "Prior to the pandemic, it was live-streamed [worldwide on YouTube] from Thomas 100, where about 700 students attended. He mentioned that he was able to do this because of a team of students who [managed] the live stream."

"Later that day, as I was walking, I had this 'Ah-ha' moment where I thought we should be able to do this for every faculty member," Sparrow continued. "[They could] have a student partner to manage the technology while the professor concentrated on what they do best, the teaching."

Sparrow took her idea to Lindsay Kiraly, manager of IT Learning and Development (ITLD). Kiraly’s unit leads Penn State’s efforts in training the University community on numerous technology tools. It also provided the infrastructure necessary to bring Sparrow’s concept to life. For years, ITLD has managed the Tech Tutors service staffed by students and offers one-on-one tutelage on assorted tech tools. Kiraly realized that the Tech Tutors had the fundamental skills needed to make the Tech TAs service possible.

“Jennifer challenged us to ‘upskill’ our group of Tech Tutors to become Zoom gurus and pair them with faculty in need,” said Kiraly. “[We worked with them] and the IT Service Desk to recruit students who were 'laid off' from on-campus positions. Then we collaborated on processes and documents around hiring, training, scheduling, and faculty request forms. Ultimately, we took the Tech TA program from idea to implementation in just over one week."

With combined decades of higher ed experience between them, Sparrow and Kiraly remarked at how unique it was for Tech TAs to come online so quickly and effectively.

“I’ve seen successful student employee opportunities in higher ed, but the speed at which this program was created and the way it has positively impacted faculty, staff, and students is something I’ve never experienced,” said Kiraly.

“I joke with people that in the first six months of the pandemic, we made six years of progress with learning technologies at Penn State,” added Sparrow. “ITLD did a great job of getting this project done by effectively training the Tech TAs on Zoom and figuring out the complex jigsaw puzzle of matching Tech TAs with faculty.”

Wang, whose BIO 110 course is taken by biology majors and non-majors both, learned about Tech TAs through Penn State Berks' Center for Teaching and Learning. His Tech TA was essential to keeping the virtual course offerings similar to face-to-face ones.

"I have 48-60 students per section and back-to-back sections in some semesters. I typically group students for several weeks, then reassort groups to help them meet new folks," said Wang. "[For remote teaching] I used Zoom breakout rooms in about 40% of my class periods. My Tech TA set up and managed the rooms because handling all those groups on my own would have been a challenge.”

Helen Major, an instructor in astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State Brandywine, had also never taught online before the pandemic. And, like Wang, Tech TAs played a vital role in her teaching over the last academic year.

“I could fully concentrate on teaching each session because my Tech TA, Gabriella, monitored the questions in the chat and took attendance each day,” said Major. “She also found a fun, engaging way to do in-class quizzes. Originally, she displayed the quizzes and results with Zoom’s poll feature. Later, she suggested an interactive game called ‘Kahoot’ that was more interactive and enjoyable for the students.”

Major’s “Gabriella” was Gabriella Schadler, and she was inspired to work as a Tech TA based on her first experience with a virtual classroom.

“In spring 2020, I had a thoroughly enjoyable class with a professor who knew the material and taught it well. When we went remote, though, Zoom became an extreme hurdle for them,” Schadler said. “The technology sometimes got in the way of class starting on time or running smoothly. So, I sought the chance to [be a Tech TA] because I wanted to help professors and students have a sense of normalcy when it came to class during the pandemic.”

Along with helping her fellow students feel more at ease by helping to iron out potential technical issues, Schadler gained an appreciation for what faculty went through daily.

“[It showed me] what professors do to prepare for a class and how they care about their students,” said Schadler. “Transitioning to an online setting was stressful for professors. [The ones] I worked with tried their best to make classes as normal as possible. And I appreciated how they were willing to try new things to improve the students’ experience.”

With fall 2021 approaching and Penn State set to transition to a more traditional mode of teaching and learning, the impact of the Tech TAs program won’t fade into the background.

“Faculty want guidance on how to move beyond using Zoom in teaching and learning,” said Kiraly. "Tech TAs gave us a great opportunity to adapt and move beyond the basics of educational technology and to explore how to reach educational goals in new ways."

Sparrow identified some of the technology tools available to Penn State faculty and a possible future version of Tech TAs.

“We have some great learning tools like Top Hat, LinkedIn Learning, Media Commons, Maker Commons, and the Adobe Creative Suite,” she said. “I think we envision a future where the Tech TAs are true partners with faculty as they plan their courses and help match technologies to pedagogy and learning outcome goals.”

Schadler noted as she prepares for the upcoming school year that she will miss her experience of being a Tech TA. Her work, though, left her with an important lesson she’ll take with her long after her time at Penn State is done.

“Being a Tech TA taught me to be a lot more patient and understanding when it comes to those who are dealing with technical issues,” she said. “Professors work so hard to make class a good experience for their students, and it can be frustrating to struggle with technology when they haven’t grown up with it.”

According to TLT’s data, Tech TAs supported faculty and students in over 400 course sections across the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. Innovative thinking, collaboration, and grit allowed the program to come together so quickly and effectively. Those same qualities will define how Tech TAs continue to support Penn State in the future.

Last Updated July 07, 2021