Support Staff

If you’re going to run an online course, the first, most important thing that you need, and I cannot stress this enough, is to have a team.

Running an online course can take as much of your time as you let it. I’ve seen people try to run classes ten times smaller than ours (in terms of enrollees) who ended up with no free time. They spent not just most of their work day, but hours every night and most of their weekend trying to handle the course. Those folks had a small team (or no team), and were working just a few days ahead of the deadlines. We didn’t do that this summer. By having a strong team and having the material ready before the course started, we had a stronger course and I had most of my weekend free.

I think of the organization as sort of a pyramid structure (though the bottom layer isn’t actually the largest). At the bottom of the pyramid were Community TAs, then Master Teachers, then On-Campus Staff, then me at the top.

The Community TAs were recruited from the course as it ran. This is a common practice in edX courses. We did two recruitment drives, one in the second week and one later on. The TAs have no official obligations except to be professional and courteous. Most of them are the kind of folks who would be contributing a ton to the discussions anyway. They get little green badges around their names in the discussion boards, so that people can tell who they are. They have some powers to moderate the discussion boards, such as editing or deleting others’ posts, and they had access to the system that we used to track issues. We had about 15-20 of them by the end of the course.

Our Master Teachers were a stroke of genius on the part of one of my co-workers. What we did is e-mail the top 15% of our students from last year’s course and say, essentially, “Hey, you folks did awesome last year. We’re running the course again this year and if you have 20 hours to help out over the course of the summer, we’d love to have help. What can we do to make it worth your time?” And from that we got 30 people, many of whom were public school high school teachers (thus the name). The most common thing they asked for was Continuing Education Units, which we were glad to provide.

I cannot say enough about how awesome these folks were to us, day in and day out. Many donated far more than 20 hours of their time in the discussion forums. They helped us scope out the unreleased material for bugs and typos. They were supportive and friendly, and I would never want to run a course without this kind of help.

Our On-Campus Staff consisted of four people: one high-school intern, two undergraduates, and a postdoc. The intern checked through the entire course from front to back, and caught a ton of errors. The undergrads helped out on the forums, but their main job was handling issues that were reported through our tracking system. The postdoc was my right-hand woman, and she tackled just about everything, from checking the course to writing new problems to being our Spanish voice on the forums. These folks had two major things that separated them from the rest of the course staff: First, they were paid full-time or part-time employees, and second, they had access to change any item in the course. They could actually make changes to the text or the homework problems.

I was the Course Coordinator. My primary job was executive decision-making. I handled issues that no one else felt they had the authority to respond to, or alterations to the course structure (removing bad problems, swapping the order of things, etc.). I also spent time on the forums and checked the problem tracker, but that’s because I had time, not because I was needed to handle day-to-day items. I could spend my time on higher-level considerations and weighing what was best for the course.

The setup might not have been ideal, but it was very good. People with  If I were to run another online course, I’d definitely try to have this sort of setup again.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on August 16, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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