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Chapter 2: Support Structures

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Many new programs to support student learning have emerged as a result of the shift to emergency remote pandemic teaching, including expanded roles for graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. Relationships between faculty and technology support staff have been largely strengthened, and there is new awareness of teaching support structures at Stanford overall.

A staff member monitoring the Zoom connection for a Stanford class during the pandemic
A staff member monitors the Zoom connection for a Stanford class during the pandemic. Photo by Robert Emery Smith.

Excerpt from Chapter 2

Novel faculty teaching and staff support structures

Changing roles

When Stanford ceased on-campus classes in March 2020 due to COVID-19, ensuring teaching continuity became the highest priority. Professors, lecturers, and instructors had to move swiftly to online delivery of course material. Emergency pandemic teaching required changes in — and in some cases caused serious disruptions to — traditional classroom teaching structures.

Conversations with members of the Center for Teaching and Learning, Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Graduate School of Business, Graduate School of Education, and other academic units reveal that Stanford instructors and staff were told to do the best they could to minimize disruption to teaching and learning. In most cases, faculty and staff were provided only one weekend to pivot to remote instruction. Within that fast timeline, staff were empowered to rapidly develop new, innovative supports for teaching and learning. That spirit of innovation continued as services were refined or built anew throughout emergency remote instruction.

Helen Chu, senior director of learning spaces in Learning Technologies and Spaces, notes that “staff were empowered to think creatively about how to respond to an extraordinary situation” while developing new ways to support underserved students through the pivot to emergency remote instruction and the ensuing year and a half of ongoing pandemic response.

Moreover, Learning Technologies and Spaces managed to ship laptops to students who needed them in consultation with the financial aid office; they also solved connectivity issues for students across the globe, while simultaneously supporting undergraduate students who remained on campus. “We were entrusted to use our expertise and good judgment to support our students and instructors,” Chu says. “There existed a strong spirit of collaboration during emergency remote instruction. Everyone was doing it together. So many people asked, ‘How can I help?’”

There existed a strong spirit of collaboration during emergency remote instruction. Everyone was doing it together. So many people asked, ‘How can I help?’”

Helen Chu, senior director of learning spaces in Learning Technologies and Spaces

In addition to new programs and services developed to support teaching and learning through the disruption, new support roles emerged. Many Stanford faculty reported a “blurring” of traditional faculty, graduate student, and undergraduate student roles and responsibilities. In particular, teaching assistant (TA) positions expanded in new ways.

Additionally, new staff support models emerged among staff units, including teaching and learning teams and educational technology support teams. Decisions on approaches to teaching with technology during emergency remote instruction were, at times, highly localized and made very quickly, with input from across teaching teams and teaching and learning support staff.

Teaching and learning support models implemented at Stanford and discussed in this chapter include:

  • Reimagining the role of students in the classroom as learning management system administrators, peer advisors, technology experts, and academic thought partners;
  • Expanding education technology support teams that provide ongoing software and hardware support to faculty and students; and
  • Acknowledging and solving for virtual classroom challenges by engaging student feedback and improving access to instructional devices (such as laptops and iPads).

New teaching support models

At the onset of the pandemic, students at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) were often called in to assist faculty who were unfamiliar with implementing distance learning modalities, recalls Josh Weiss, the GSE’s director of Digital Learning Solutions. GSE students often had to meet these new demands without much guidance, training, or resources. Beyond the GSE, graduate students across the university took on new roles as digital course designers: editing syllabi, creating assignments, and recording and posting lectures. Many had no experience or formal training in higher education teaching pedagogy or course design.

Nonetheless, in many instances, the assistance provided by students to faculty was helpful. Beth Seltzer, who was an academic technology specialist in Stanford Introductory Studies during emergency remote instruction, recalls that faculty demand for teaching support emerged “basically overnight.” There was little to no time for testing, and many Stanford faculty had to lean heavily on tools in place before the crisis — typically the learning management system Canvas and the video conferencing platform Zoom — but they were often without experience in these teaching modalities. These instructors on some occasions turned directly to graduate students and teaching assistants for “technical” support in these areas.

There were also some formal faculty teaching support structures serving instructors. It was common for faculty to struggle with information and communications technology skills, including “setting the norms for a mediated, virtual learning environment,” says Laura Schlosbergassistant dean of academic and curricular support in the School of Humanities and Sciences. In particular, course instructors found themselves needing to develop competencies on short notice in three principal areas to transform their in-person pedagogy to a remote learning environment: learning management systems, online course design, and virtual facilitation of quality remote learning.

Notably, not only did instructors have to learn a new platform (e.g., Zoom) to deliver their instruction, they also had to teach while monitoring chat, watching for virtual “raised hands,” and maintaining direct eye contact with their audience...

More voices from Chapter 2

“We realized that our faculty would need support in Canvas beyond what a traditional TA would provide.”
Josh Weiss, GSE’s director of Digital Learning Solutions

“Group work posed a significant challenge. Assignments where students were expected to get together and present at the end of the course were hard. There were challenges with time zones, coordinating schedules, and ensuring people could contribute evenly.”
Bowen Jiang, then a senior and digital ambassador, now a course development assistant plus (CDA+) studying computer science

“All of our groups have had to grow together during this time, which has sparked a collaborative relationship. Faculty have created entirely new roles for course staff and TAs, which creates an opportunity for a shared exploration model moving forward.”
Pauline Becker, director of strategy and operations for the medical school’s ed tech team