Brightspace Training and the Perceived Benefits of GTAs
In the last academic year, I have been working as a Learning Technology Coach (LTC) at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) at Memorial University, where I am also completing my PhD program in engineering. LTCs support instructors in using tools in their course sites, using Webex, and investigating new educational technologies.
Working in this exciting role, I help faculty members and graduate student teaching assistants (GTAs) while navigating their way through academia. It has become apparent that newly admitted graduate students often have limited knowledge of and little experience using the Learning Management System (LMS) from an instructor perspective. By the time they get admitted to grad school, GTAs do have a lot of experience using the LMS as students; but they don’t know how to use the LMS tools as instructors, which makes it challenging for them to fulfill their GTA responsibilities.
To fulfill their responsibilities, a GTA has to possess certain skills and a high level of confidence. The intersection of the three bodies of knowledge, including technology, pedagogy and content, is a requirement of effective teaching known as TPACK (Koehler & Mishra, 2009). While the content and pedagogy answer the questions of “what” and “how” will be selected to pass the knowledge over to students, technology answers the question of “how” to do it in a more effective and learner-friendly way.
GTAs play a significant role in teaching in higher education and in introducing the discipline to undergraduate students in introductory/advanced level courses (Haque & Meadows, 2020). GTAs instructional duties differ across institutions and departments, including a comprehensive responsibility for designing and implementing courses, conducting tutorials, supervising discussion and laboratory groups, and marking. In addition, GTAs are the intermediary between instructors and students, providing undeniable support and service to both parties. For instance, GTAs offer personalized learning situations in large lectures and are the primary point of contact for students (Nasser-Abu Alhija & Fresko, 2019).
Without adequate GTA training that addresses the three elements of effective teaching noted above, graduate students commonly feel unprepared for their teaching experience. Feelings of anxiety may be caused by lack of confidence and lack of support/guidance from faculty, mentors, and departments (Smollin & Arluke, 2014; Jungels et al., 2014). Hence, considering the undeniable role of GTAs and the importance of their contribution toward higher education, training programs to increase intrinsic motivation, educate/challenge graduate students to be creative and reflective, and equip them with the skills/knowledge used in the position are essential (Hoessler & Godden, 2015).
The pandemic has aggravated the training gap even further. Many courses have been delivered remotely and some are projected to continue to be delivered online even post-pandemic. In this situation, the knowledge required to communicate using our LMS, Brightspace, has become vital. Many GTAs I have been working with (I am also a GTA myself) are also international students. While they often have extensive teaching experience in their home countries, it can be challenging to translate this experience to Canadian higher education contexts. GTAs, especially international GTAs, need training when they begin to teach at Canadian universities because they are transitioning to a new cultural and social context at the same time as some are learning to teach for the first time (Meadows et al., 2015). For example, the concept of plagiarism is understood differently in different academic cultures, and checking for plagiarism while grading assignments may be a new practice for international GTAs which they should be trained for.
In my role as a LTC I have realized that an important component is missing – the formal training of future GTAs on the use of the LMS tools that are used by a university – in my case, the use of Brightspace. That is where the idea of designing and conducting customized workshops on Brightspace tools to address the needs of GTAs came from.
The knowledge of pedagogy is addressed in some programs at Memorial, including Teaching Assistant Training Program (TATP) and the Teaching Skills Enhancement Program (TSEP). While these two programs focus on basic teaching skills for GTAs, the formal training on the Brightspace/LMS was missing until recent semesters.
In designing the training, we identified and prioritized the most common responsibilities of GTAs in different departments of Memorial. Having considered those, we designed a two-hour interactive workshop as a part of the TATP, focusing on using Brightspace features and communication tools.
In the first hour, the basics of Brightspace are covered including assessment tools that are used mainly by GTAs. Some scenarios and their appropriate solutions/approaches are then reviewed. In the second hour, after a brief introduction of content management in Brightspace we discuss the communication tools focusing on Online Rooms and Webex. In both training sessions we made sure to design activities that give students a hands-on experience using Brightspace.
Graduate student attendees were invited to complete a feedback form containing questions that were designed to gain a sense of the perceived impact of the program on students’ general instructional competence. Overall, the attendees were delighted with the quality of the training. The following is some of the feedback we received:
“Now I know better all available tools on Brightspace to carry on TA tasks set.”
“I have been teaching for over 10 years abroad. This course helped me transition into a Canadian educational system, and I feel more confident now knowing the expectations of a GTA at MUN”.
“These workshops were extremely valuable. I really enjoyed the inside look into how brightspace works, I have never received that training before”.
It is worth mentioning that many students commented on how the technology training could help them increase their self-confidence.
In conclusion, GTAs are a vital component of academia, playing an important role in establishing positive teaching and learning environments. Therefore, equipping them with the knowledge necessary to fulfill their roles is essential. From this perspective, training initiatives designed for and customized to the needs of GTAs should become an integral part of graduate student development programs, and my personal experience of working with GTAs as a LTC and the success of the Brightspace training workshops we designed is excellent evidence to support this idea.
Haque, A., & Meadows, K. N. (2020). Impact of the lead TA program on the perceived disciplinary instructional competence of Graduate Teaching Assistants. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2020.2.11103
Hoessler, C., & Godden, L. (2015). The visioning of policy and the hope of implementation: Support for graduate students’ teaching at a canadian institution. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 45(1), 83–101. https://doi.org/10.47678/cjhe.v45i1.184210
Jungels, A., Brown, M., Stombler, M. & Yasumoto, S. (2014). “Teaching Associates: Bridging Informal and Formal Mechanisms of Support for Graduate Student Instructors.” Teaching Sociology, 42(3), 220-230.
Meadows, K. N., Olsen, K. C., Dimitrov, N., & Dawson, D. L. (2015). Evaluating the differential impact of teaching assistant training programs on International Graduate Student Teaching. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 45(3), 34–55. https://doi.org/10.47678/cjhe.v45i3.187557
Mishra, P. (2019). Considering contextual knowledge: The Tpack diagram gets an upgrade. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 35(2), 76–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/21532974.2019.1588611
Nasser-Abu Alhija, F., & Fresko, B. (2019). Graduate teaching assistants: Motives, difficulties and professional interactions and their relationship to perceived benefits. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(3), 546–560. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1681374
Smollin, Leandra M. & Arluke, Arnold. (2014). “Rites of Pedagogical Passage: How Graduate Student Instructors Negotiate the Challenges of First Time Teaching.” Teaching Sociology, 42 (1), 28-39.
Sepideh (she/her/hers) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Process Engineering at the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). She is also a Learning Technology Coach (LTC) at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) at MUN, where she provides educational technology support to the instructors and contributes to many projects, including Global Open Education Week and Teaching Assistant Training Program (TATP). She has been awarded the title “Fellow of the School of Graduate Studies” for academic excellence, has participated in the Teaching Skills Enhancement Program (TSEP), and has experience as both a teaching assistant and project engineer.