In this section, A. C. Kemp describes how helping international teaching assistants (ITAs) think about their classes as products can assist these educators in developing user-friendly learning experiences for students.
Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Approaches
In education, we talk about teacher-centered classes, in which teachers control the class and do most of the talking, and student-centered classes, in which students are actively involved in their learning and help to shape the class.
For many international teaching assistants (ITAs), the teacher-centered approach is familiar and appealing. With less interaction, there is less of a chance that they will be asked a question they cannot answer—or any question at all. In that scenario, they have near-complete control over what happens in the classroom, which removes some of their anxiety. However, MIT undergraduates tend to expect to have more of a say in what happens in their classes and can become frustrated and bored with a teacher-centered approach.
As educators working with ITAs, we need to accomplish two things: One is to help ITAs understand the value of student-centered teaching; the other is to show them how to teach in that way.
A Shift in Perception: Learning to See Classes as User Experiences
Although teachers do not usually think of their classes as products, understanding the principles designers use to make products user-friendly can help ITAs design their classes in a more student-centered way. ITAs may not know about student-centered classrooms, but all have experienced user-friendly (and user-unfriendly) products, services and websites. Because of their background experiences in this domain, I began introducing the idea of User Experience (UX) as an approach to teaching in ITA classes.
Understanding User Experience (UX)
Even if you have never heard of the design concept UX, you know it when you see it. It is a user-friendly experience when the barista at the corner coffee shop greets you by your name and remembers your favorite drink, which is delivered to you quickly, just the way you like it. Or your new smart phone is so intuitive that you don’t need to refer to a manual to send a text or download an app. On the other hand, it’s a user-unfriendly experience when your child’s “easy-to-assemble” bicycle is delivered with a tiny diagram and a jumbled list of confusing instructions.
In other words, user experience is the way in which we interact with a product or service; a user-friendly experience is one that has been designed to anticipate and meet the needs of the user, creating a smooth, easy, positive interaction—one which makes a happy customer choose your product again—or come back to your class! This requires not only planning, but also testing and improving one’s plans.
User Experience and ITA Training
The idea behind the User-friendly Classroom video series is to help ITAs apply the following UX principles in their teaching: anticipating student needs, planning classes to meet those needs, testing the classes and adapting their teaching based on feedback.
The undergraduate interviews in the video series provide an overview of what MIT students want in a class, and the teaching examples help ITAs identify the specific behaviors that make a class user-friendly based on the undergraduates’ criteria.
When I use the series in my teaching with ITAs, I notice that they come away with a clearer idea of students’ expectations. I then have them design their own lessons. They practice teaching mock classes with their peers and get feedback based on the undergraduate criteria. They also watch videos of their own teaching and evaluate themselves. Based on those observations, they adapt and improve their teaching, making their classes user-friendly and, thus, more student-centered.