Nov. 9, 2020

Grad students help instructors become tech ‘superusers’

Taylor Institute’s learning technology coaches program supports faculties across campus, building skills and confidence in online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, including how we teach and learn on university campuses. In early May, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning launched the Learning Technology Coach program to help instructors deliver quality online learning experiences to their students.

In late April, program manager Allie Wright, along with other members of the Taylor Institute, got to work, hiring 10 part-time graduate student coaches and getting the program up and running in time for the spring semester.

Learning technology coaches are able to support instructors with a variety of online learning technologies, including:

  • D2L: Developing a course shell, creating discussion boards, quizzes, rubrics and course assignment drop boxes
  • YuJa and PowerPoint: Recording lectures
  • Zoom: Scheduling, recording and running live sessions, creating breakout groups and troubleshooting

“Since May, we’ve dealt with almost 600 requests for assistance from every faculty on campus,” says Wright. “In addition to working directly with instructors, the coaches have helped create resources, materials and guides with the Taylor Institute Learning Technologies team that can be accessed on the eLearn website.”

Grad student employment and experiential learning

Each coach is a University of Calgary graduate student. For them, this is an experiential learning opportunity as well as a meaningful job. Jennifer Akpoyibo, a MEng graduate student, had been working in IT in the Haskayne School of Business when campus shut down in March.

“When everything went online, I helped instructors with hardware and file transfers so they could work from home,” says Akpoyibo. “I was asked lots of questions like ‘how do I do Zoom?’"

Richard Fossey, a doctoral candidate in Werklund’s Learning Sciences program, also brought technology experience into his role as a coach — but had more to learn. “Part of our training in May involved taking the TI technology workshops alongside faculty,” he says.

“I found it exciting to be learning and building skills around the various technologies together. This job is providing me with numerous benefits, including networking, meeting new faculty, and learning new skills and competencies.”

Akpoyibo sees the benefits as well. “My career goals involve entering the field of tech consultancy," she says "So being a coach is very helpful in further developing my customer service skills as well as my interpersonal skills like communication, empathy and understanding.”

Coach support in Werklund and local K-12 educational community

Dr. Barb Brown, associate dean (teaching and learning) in the Werklund School of Education, is impressed with how the coaching program supports instructors.

“In Werklund, needs range depending on whether faculty have prior experience teaching online,” says Brown. “Some faculty haven’t taught online for a few years and need to get familiar with Zoom, the newer functions with D2L, or what other kinds of technologies there are to complement institutionally approved tools.” 

Werklund is highly engaged with the local K-12 educational community through their undergraduate pre-service teachers and graduate programs. The coaches’ work is providing Werklund with a unique opportunity to share some of the Taylor Institute’s resources that can be applied to K-12 online teaching.

“We've been able to tap into the technology coaches’ expertise by hiring two of them to develop resources and provide support to Calgary-area teachers around online learning,” says Brown. “Ultimately we’ll be able to take these resources that are supporting actual teachers in the field who are teaching online today and use them to help train our pre-service teachers who are preparing for a career in education.”

Supporting instructors in becoming ‘superusers’

“I feel for the academic staff who never signed up to do this kind of teaching,” says Wright. “Through this program, we’re helping instructors build their confidence and capacity in creating great online learning experiences for their students.”

Initially coaches were being asked to help set up Zoom sessions and record lectures. More current requests involve how to engage students during synchronous lectures in an organized way and engage them in pre-recorded lectures, how to use D2L quizzes to create exams, and issues around academic integrity.

“Some instructors are becoming what we call tech ‘superusers’ and making new complex requests that are challenging our coaches to become more adept and better,” says Wright. “It’s really the efforts of everyone involved — instructors, coaches, the Taylor Institute and IT teams, everyone involved in teaching and learning in the different faculties — that are making this program a success and enabling our students to keep learning in these challenging times.”

The Learning Technology Coaches program forms part of the Taylor Institute’s Online Learning Project, made possible by a generous $1 million gift from the Flanagan Foundation. The Online Learning Project will support UCalgary in meeting the immediate challenges of pivoting to online learning, and to catalyze innovation that will transform online and blended teaching and learning after the pandemic.

Fostering innovation in evidence-based teaching and strengthening capacity in online and blended learning are among the Taylor Institute’s key priorities from its 2020-25 Unit Plan. Learn more about the Taylor Institute and how you can support its transformational work at UCalgary.