I’ve won the College of Computing Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award

This was announced a few weeks ago, but since I received the award itself today, I figured I’d wait until now to announce it here: I’ve been selected as the recipient of the 2015 Georgia Tech College of Computing Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award for my work on the Fall 2014 Knowledge-Based AI class in the OMSCS. This post is half news post, half blog post.

First of all, I’m grateful to Ashok, the professor for the course (and my PhD adviser) and to the students in the course for their unbelievably kind words during the nominations. Thank you as well to the College of Computing for ultimately selecting me.

This experience has inspired a number of thoughts in my mind, though, that I hope to explore in the coming weeks. One major question I have is: is the role of the teaching assistant more significant in online classes than in on-campus classes? So far, the key determining factor I’ve observed in how well a class is run in the OMS is how involved the head TA is. I could see how that may be true in on-campus classes as well, but in an online class, an enormous responsibility falls on the TA to manually recreate elements of the class experience that happen naturally on-campus. Do we need to re-explore how we choose head TAs based on this potential increased importance? Do we need to reconsider what the responsibilities of a head TA in an online class even ought to be? Do we need to re-examine the qualifications a head TA for an online class ought to have?

The second question I have is a little arrogant, but I’ll mention it anyway. It’s not surprising that I was a good TA in Fall: I have ten years of teaching experience, ten years of experience interacting on online forums (an underrated skill in this setting), ten years of experience constructing assessments in other domains. On top of that, I had more time to devote to TAing the class than most TAs have: my dissertation work was done, and my primary responsibility for the semester was TAing the class. Under those circumstances, it’s no surprise that I did a pretty good job.

We can’t hire someone like me to be a TA every semester. The skillset I just described commands a high salary. Even if it didn’t, simply finding people with that skillset is difficult. Finding 30 people with that skillset, each to run a class? That’s absolutely impossible. We can’t just have a bunch of me TAing every course every semester. So the question then becomes: how do we replicate some of what went well in our course in classes that don’t have the same resources?

That second question is what I’ve been exploring in my new role working with all the classes. That second question is also what I hope to explore soon in this space. Hopefully I’ll catch BuzzFeed’s eye with “10 Mind-Blowing Tricks Your TA Should Use In Your Class!”

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Disclaimer: I Work for Udacity

Disclaimer: I work for Udacity. I have to give that disclaimer in many things I write because I’m writing about things very core to Udacity’s business. There’s the risk for a major conflict of interests. You’d be entirely within your rights to dismiss anything good I say about Udacity as mere self-preservation.

So, I want to make something perfectly clear: I don’t believe in Udacity because I work for Udacity. I work for Udacity because I believe in Udacity.

When I started work with Udacity a little over a year ago, I came aboard initially very specifically to work on our Knowledge-Based AI class for the Georgia Tech OMSCS. The true “development” phase of the class ended in December of 2014 with the end of the first offering. At that point, it would have been entirely natural for me to leave Udacity: the project I joined to work on was done, and so it was time to move on to other things. The timing would have been perfect, frankly: I defended my dissertation four days after the course ended. If there was ever a time to switch, that was it.

Truth be told, when I joined Udacity, that was probably the closest thing I had to a “plan”. I honestly didn’t have a real full plan, but I know that I wasn’t looking past the Knowledge-Based AI course at first. I knew I’d have options at the end of my PhD, and I already had more than a couple connections waiting for me to graduate.

Udacity, however, won me over. Never before in my life had I been so consistently surrounded with people that shared my passion for education. I had never seen such a group that was so obsessed with not only educating people, but with learning how to educate people. Outside academia, I had never seen a group of people so invested in the science side of education, in experimenting and testing and failing and learning. Perhaps most significantly, I had never seen a group of educators who so adamantly loved their students. I don’t mean ‘love’ as in simply enjoyed; I mean ‘love’ in the truest sense of the word, a group that earnestly wanted to improve the lives of their students.

It’s for that reason that I say: I work for Udacity because I believe in Udacity, not the other way around. There are lots of other reasons I believe in Udacity, from the amazing corporate culture to the relevance of the OMS and Nanodegree programs in addressing the cost of higher education to the opportunity to work with a student body that I love as well, but it all starts with the above. As an educator, I cannot imagine a more perfect place to work (setting aside the fact that my ultimate passion is K-12 education, not college education).

Of course, you don’t have to believe any of this. The value of much of what I write in this blog depends on me being earnest, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’d write to convince you I’m earnest. I hope I’ve at least convinced you to give me a chance, however.

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