‘Doing more with less’: GSIs face multiple challenges during year of online instruction

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Katie Lee/Staff
The online instruction prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has given GSIs several challenges. Some of these include limitations of online classes, "Zoom fatigue" and department budget cuts.

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At a time when many aspects of daily life have been altered, UC Berkeley assistant teaching professor Gireeja Ranade has been working alongside TAs to try to make sure students do not feel that anything has changed.

The pandemic and resulting yearlong course of online instruction have thrust GSIs into a new realm of challenges, such as trying to preserve educational aspects of in-person instruction while creating accommodations for students.

Some professors have found that their courses, such as ones in electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, were difficult to shift online, and GSIs echoed the sentiment that virtual instruction has posed unique challenges.

“It has changed a lot in the sense that we’re basically doing more with less,” Ranade, who teaches in the EECS department, said.

In a typical in-person lab section, students and GSIs have access to expensive equipment, Ranade added. Remote instruction has pushed them to create alternatives for such equipment, which she noted is not as effective as their lab equipment.

The alternative for Ranade’s lab sections, and other electrical engineering courses, has been mailing lab kits to students.

In the physical lab, Ranade noted, GSIs had the ability to help debug students’ projects by looking at them in person. Now, however, they are forced to observe and communicate through a screen, which Ranade described as stressful, with students trying to show their materials via a camera.

Sravya Basvapatri and Steven Lu, two head lab GSIs for EECS 16B, also said virtual labs can make identifying issues and helping students debug more difficult, as compared to in person.

“When you’re virtual, it’s kind of more of a guessing game on both sides,” Basvapatri said. “You’re walking through with the student trying to figure out what’s wrong with their circuit, and you have to rely on the student to navigate that process.”

Although shipping lab kits can resolve equipment problems, it can also present timing difficulties, as packages to international students must go through customs, according to Raghav Gupta, a head lab TA for EECS 16A. This can create a three to four-week delay, so TAs have to create equivalent activities to the lab for students without lab kits.

Despite the difficulties of helping students with their projects over Zoom, Gupta said they have been able to successfully transition to remote learning.

The limitations of online classes and office hours

To Nicholas Weaver, campus lecturer for computer science courses CS 161 and CS 61C, the pandemic has stripped students and teachers of the many advantages of in-person learning, especially in regard to office hours.

“Office hours in person are a highly efficient affair, with students getting answers in groups, helping each other out while waiting, and other behaviors,” Weaver said in an email. “Lab checkoffs are streamlined and the lab itself is an invaluable educational process. Project ‘parties’ really help a large number of students in a very efficient manner. We’ve lost all of that.”

With students unable to interact with one another as they normally would in person, office hours have become “less efficient,” according to Peyrin Kao, head TA for CS 161. The dynamic of students working together to tackle questions and all be able to see explanations on a whiteboard becomes more challenging over Zoom.

Instead, with remote learning, students will ask questions individually and then leave, Kao said. This has led to TAs taking much longer than usual to answer student questions during office hours and having to scale up these hours to accommodate the level of help students need.

Another aspect that is lost is interactions between TAs and students, as TAs are now unable to look over students’ shoulders to see their screen and lend a helping hand.

“When you’re online, it’s literally like, I’m on a screen, you’re on a screen, maybe they can share the screen with me,” Kao said. “But besides that, we’re just talking. It’s almost like a phone call.”

Kao noted that some people have adapted by creating waiting rooms or Discord servers where students can talk to one another, but some projects — particularly in CS 161 — may be difficult to collaborate on.

“Zoom fatigue”: GSIs and students struggle to remain motivated through computer screens

Beyond challenges in office hours and explaining course material, the pandemic has made it difficult for GSIs to keep students engaged and motivated.

“It’s hard to gauge whether my students are annoyed with my presentation or just really tired,” said Monika Chao, a GSI for Philosophy 135. “A lot of them just don’t turn their cameras on, which I understand.”

Chao said it can also be tiring to talk into a “void” when students are experiencing burnout, a feeling she said she understands.

Akin to Chao, Akhilesh Pandita, a GSI for Media Studies 113, said a major challenge that stems from online learning is lack of motivation. He described the issue as a “sword which cuts on both sides,” as it can be difficult for both faculty and students.

Although he looks forward to his discussion sections, Pandita said the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” can be mentally tiring for everyone in education.

“Before the pandemic, your life was split between the classes, the campus, online meetings and your home,” Pandita said. “Now all four of them have become your Zoom.”

Participation in in-person courses was already limited, Pandita remarked, and has only been magnified by online classes. It can be increasingly difficult to connect with students in online sections, especially because Pandita cannot assess if he has captured their attention.

The Graduate Division’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center on campus has worked to inform GSIs about opportunities for mental health support, according to Berkeley Graduate Division spokesperson Kathleen Aycock.

She added that these resources include counselors, the Graduate Assembly’s wellness specialist and four kinds of graduate student support groups.

Departmental budget cuts and academic support funds

UC Berkeley’s computer science department has seen a lot of growth, according to Weaver. Faced with a large demand in students, scaling the number of TAs has allowed it to take on more students.

However, amid departmental budget cuts, there have been reductions in student instructors during the spring semester and in anticipated student slots as well, Weaver noted.

Amid daily challenges with online instruction, GSIs and professors have cited the reduced number of student instructors as another source of stress.

Kao said CS 161 originally had a budget that accommodated 600 students, but the department has had to lower that number to about 400.

Making a class scalable could decrease extra costs, and campus could help the department by giving it a “little extra push,” Kao said.

“Our department really cannot run on the budget that we’re getting, and the people who are picking up the slack are overworked GSIs and underserved students,” Kao said.

In some cases, Kao added, students may face issues such as having to study by themselves, wait hours for help in office hours or stay extra semesters because they are unable to take a necessary class.

According to Aycock, funds from campus make up just a part of the funding for colleges and schools, and other factors in individual colleges may play into hiring decisions related to GSIs.

Having GSIs who are dedicated to aspects of teaching such as creating a welcoming environment for students and ensuring inclusivity would be great, Ranade said, but budget shortages can prevent that.

Being short on budget can lead to just staffing mandatory lab sections, Ranade added, which ultimately creates limited time to achieve those environments for students.

“There’ll be a bajillion things that need to be done,” Ranade said. “Something’s got to give is what ends up happening, and it’s hard to tell you that X is what we sacrifice, or Y is what we sacrifice because the faculty and a lot of the TAs care so much.”

As a result of that care, Ranade added, staff members can end up working extra to ensure “nothing slips through the cracks.”

UC Berkeley has experienced budget cuts due to a $340 million hit on its budget as of December 2020, according to Aycock. She said in an email that despite this, campus has focused on retention and support for students, including GSIs.

Additionally, block grants given by the Graduate Division to departments have not been affected by budget cuts.

“When enacting cost-saving measures, the campus has prioritized the health and well-being of the campus community,” Aycock said in the email. “Every alternative is and has been assessed through an equity lens. Every effort is being made to save jobs and maximize employment. We are, and will remain, determined to protect our academic core and excellence, including support for all students (inclusive of GSIs).”

Funds in 2021 for temporary academic support from the executive vice chancellor and provost remained at the same levels as those in 2020 due to COVID-19, according to Aycock. However, they will see a “modest” increase in 2022.

Aycock noted that temporary academic support is additionally funded by individual colleges and schools.

“The allocation of funds used to support uGSIs and GSIs varies between each school and college, as per the decisions of the various deans,” Aycock said in the email. “There is no doubt, however, that COVID-related budgetary challenges have forced departments to look at all hiring and personnel closely.”

“Classes collapse”: The importance and care of student instructors

While the pandemic has presented challenges, GSIs and professors alike have agreed on one thing: The work of GSIs is incredibly important, and they tend to place a lot of care in their teaching.

Basvapatri said classes, especially ones centered around debugging such as EECS 16B, can be frustrating for students in a remote environment, but GSIs are able to guide them due to their personal experiences.

Lu also noted that because EECS 16A and EECS 16B are introductory courses generally aimed toward freshmen, support is even more important to encourage them to continue pursuing the subject.

As for Gupta, he said he is very passionate about teaching and enjoys giving back to students the same way he was helped.

“It doesn’t really feel like work,” Gupta said.

Pandita held similar sentiments, adding that his discussion sections make up the best part of his day or week and that a good GSI will ultimately help make a class easier.

To Ranade, her staff comprises “amazing, phenomenal people” who deserve to be recognized more for their work. Weaver also noted how important GSIs are in computer science courses.

“So much student learning occurs in small group settings like lab, discussion, and office hours,” Weaver said in the email. “It is only a minor exaggeration to say that I could be replaced with a trained monkey, but lose the TA corps and the classes collapse.”

Natalie Lu is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.