Digital Assistants Bridge
Having coursework come alive through new media surely excites
students. It also can stiffen professors who may struggle with
getting the VCR to do anything beyond blink 12:00 but now find they
are expected to construct homework assignments guided by a mouse
and convert lectures into showtime.
Columbia now has a program that turns graduate students into
digital assistants to help bridge the schism between what students
expect and what teachers will try.
program's origins extend a few years back, when Nick Turro, a
professor of chemistry, and Leonard Fine, director of undergraduate
labs in the chemistry department, realized that computer programs
might make understanding chemistry easier for the students. But
what professor has the time, or in many cases the computer skills,
to bushwhack into the digital jungle? So the department turned to
undergraduates, who teethed on computers in grade school and
actually enjoy wrestling unknowns on the computer, especially when
they are earning money doing it.
National Science Foundation gave the department a grant of $200,000
to hire students and see what they could create. With additional
funding from the provost's office, the program has evolved into a
University-wide "student TA" program, where students are hired to
help develop computer software, programs and online tutorials for
use in courses.
idea was to tell faculty, 'You tell us what you want to do with new
technology and we'll try to find a student who can do it,'" says
summer that program was taken over and expanded by the Center for New Media
Teaching and Learning. Seventeen graduate students from almost
as many departments spent six weeks learning Web development skills
and how to use technology to enhance teaching.
thought it would be good for the graduate students to learn this
technology and its pedagogical purposes, and good for our
department's efforts to become more technologically adept," says
Alan Brinkley, chair of the history department, which sent two
students to the program.
Students were given a stipend and the use of a laptop for the
year. In the fall, the digital assistants returned to their
departments, where in addition to their own study and research they
spend about 10 hours per week helping faculty develop Web pages and
other technological advances for their courses.
Training students from individual departments allows the CCNMTL
to take advantage of the expertise that graduate students have in
particular fields. A history student who works with her professors,
for example, already understands the databases and other digital
resources that historians use and can offer ideas about using new
media in the classroom and for independent study.
"It's better to have someone who knows history when they're
building a course Web site," Brinkley says. "They're not at our
beck and call, but they are available to explain to people what's
available and what can be done."
Having a resident digital assistant is meant to encourage
faculty to explore new media possibilities, and to make help that
much closer when the inevitable glitches arise. Not understanding
the technology and fearing a meltdown scares off some professors.
"All you have to hear is two or three nightmares and it's enough to
turn you off," says Turro.
Fortunately for Turro, the chemistry department now has a
full-time techie. Professors whose departments have their own
digital assistants can fear less the digital dark.