This issue’s TA column is an essay on the hiring of TAs before, during, and after the advent of COVID-19. To date, contributing authors have explained the benefits of employing a Student Assistant (SA) or a Teaching Assistant (TA) in university classrooms. During 2020, as emergency measures took hold in Japan, SA and TA part-timer positions were cut. Looking forward to when cures and vaccines allow for a new normal in the classroom, writers for this column may take the opportunity to suggest new job descriptions for the SA and TA.
In the year 2019 B.C. (Before Coronavirus), tasks for a TA could reasonably be expected to include assisting instructors and interacting with students in class discussions, setting up audiovisual equipment and computer networks, the taking of attendance, and preparing teaching materials before class (Figure 1).
A legal system allowing for the employment of a TA to support classroom teaching at universities in Japan was introduced in 1992. According to Daizen (2014), the original purpose of implementing the system at Hiroshima University was to provide post-graduate students with teaching experience and financial support in a way that would enhance undergraduate education. Instructors welcomed the help of reliable graduate teaching assistants. TAs with linguistic skills and international perspectives enlivened classrooms. Native speakers or students with certifications of English language proficiency can assist in foreign language classes. Additionally, the graduate students often brought abilities in website design, audio, and video editing, knowledge of other languages, and computer skills. Osaka University revised its SA and TA system from the 2018 academic year to introduce an upgraded status of Teaching Fellow (TF) and clearly differentiate between these part-timer roles. SAs were to be engaged in class-related duties, but not involved in teaching. TAs could assist with supplementary duties in educational activity under the guidance of a teacher. TFs were to be hired to make plans for supplementary instruction under the educational guidance of a teacher and teach classes while developing and managing them. Universities, in general, actively recruit individuals hoping to become a teacher at a university or those hoping to become a teacher at junior and senior high schools. Osaka University (2017) advertised on its website, ‘those hoping to get into a company will also have many opportunities to be on the teaching side in their careers. In that sense, working as a TA or TF will be of use in the future.’
Before COVID-19, the adoption of technology in classrooms was already commonplace. TAs actively helped with language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, and online learning software. When the pandemic took hold, demand surged for the implementation of such educational software. Yet, as we shall see in the next paragraph, university administrators stumbled in their rapid response to protect students and budgets by suspending the TA system.
TAs During COVID-19 Emergency Measures
As late as April 4, 2020, universities in Japan planned to hire returning undergraduates as SAs, and graduate students as TAs for the spring semester. When emergency levels rose in the Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka areas, these part-timer positions along with club activities were among the first activities to be curtailed by university boards. On March 27, the University of Tokyo’s Komaba Campus closed its gates to all students. Ohta (2020) declared that ‘For the first time since the establishment of the University of Tokyo, we have decided to adopt a mass introduction of online classes.’
The University of Tokyo and Osaka University managed to keep pace with the new semester and started online classes. Some regional universities soon followed this trend. However, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto University, and Keio University chose to delay commencing their semesters to buy time to figure out how to develop online classes. The International University of Kagoshima cancelled the opening ceremony but asked teachers and staff to continue with its orientation. However, forty SAs who had just been hired to greet freshmen students and assist with course selections were suddenly let go. University management decided to cancel the SA information sessions and their participation throughout the semester and announced, ‘From the position of preventing the spread of coronaviruses as much as possible, in this semester, we are required to minimize contact with other people’ (personal communication 2020, April 4). Some other campuses in Kyushu, Hokuriku, and Tohoku also planned to remain open and offer regular classes in which teachers and students wore masks and practiced social distancing (Figure 2). Teachers hurriedly faced having to re-imagine their roles entirely amid school closures and without SAs and TAs.
A big part of the change was making a sudden shift to digital forms of teaching. Existing university computer platforms, and private company technology, such as Zoom and Google Drive, helped facilitate lessons and communication to students connecting from home. Some private universities in Japan were prepared and transitioned to distance learning quite quickly. For example, University of Kitakyushu administrators asked instructors to reformulate their classes for virtual delivery. They chose the platform, directed instructors to practice using it, and then informed students by internet announcements and email to start using the platform. Teachers posted out a whole month of lessons and homework tasks requiring the writing of reports, which the teachers could remotely check through a university platform that connects students to teachers.
Some universities, however, seem to have not been able to cope. University-wide distance learning was something that administrators neither wanted nor anticipated. Although students and faculty should have a degree of competency when it comes to digital tools and platforms, many institutions faced difficulty. The unplanned and rapid move to online learning for instructors with no training and no support from a TA and students with insufficient bandwidth and no support from a SA, was challenging during the months before emergency measures were lifted. Osamu Ikeda, a professor of educational methods at Kyoto Tachibana University, reported that ‘The administrative level failed to face this crisis’ (O’Donoghue, 2020). At Tokyo University, Ohta (2020), admitted, ‘Honestly speaking, the College and the Graduate School have not had enough time to prepare for the introduction of online classes. We will have to go through a process of trial and error at first. Some teachers are unfamiliar with online classes and ICT education.’ Even those campuses closed, however, on April 18 at least until May 11 when all-Japan emergency measures came into effect. When these last holdouts closed, their university freshmen realized they had no one to turn to with their questions. They still had not made new friends, joined clubs, toured campus, nor bought all their textbooks. Most freshmen were equipped with smartphones, but they weren’t equipped with software applications to enable the writing of academic reports and documents.
TAs in Post-Covid-19 Classroom
Looking ahead to 2021 A.D. (After Discovery) when students will be shielded by a preventative vaccine, we will need to consider what changes need to be made to bring back SAs and TAs to the classroom. Will the adoption of online learning continue to persist post-pandemic? Also, how would such a shift impact tertiary education in Japan?
Post-COVID, traditional classroom learning and e-learning can go hand in hand. A new hybrid model of education could emerge, with significant benefits. While schools and universities across Japan have largely tried their hands at distance learning over the past two months, significant discrepancies emerged. Teachers who knew how to handle ICT devices smoothly will continue to use them to support students’ learning at home between their weekly classes. These teachers will likely double-down in teaching communication skills to help their students survive in the future world full of uncertainty. Emergency measures and the need to stay home changed the way of teaching for a few months in Japan. It enabled teachers to reach out to students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting, and document sharing. Students also found it easier to communicate with teachers. After experiencing the benefits first-hand, some teachers will continue to supplement their lessons with the new technology. The rush to teach online was troublesome for some other teachers and administrators. With the support of their registrar staff, those teachers may opt to return to the comfort of large-size classroom lectures. Ohta (2020) noted, ‘We believe that traditional classes are still the best in terms of educational effectiveness.’ The assertion that traditional forms of instruction are better for educational institutions continues to persist. Harari (2018) pointed out in his lessons how some schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning. Continuing to do so could make the already ominous predictions that traditionally-schooled graduates will lose out to android technology and Artificial Information even worse. He makes a passionate argument for dumping curricula filled with quickly outdated substantive knowledge and replacing it with communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. During the next emergency, government will again take the power to invest their budgets and bonds in people’s health and education, or, in advanced technology and defense. It would be very dangerous to be redundant when facing competition from robots and viruses.
Although the pandemic disrupted the education system in Japan, we now have an opportunity to transform educational practices. The crisis could be the catalyst for Japan to embrace information and communication technology. In Pre-COVID Japan, Kajimoto and Leussink (2019) supported the idea that “Spending on education and training for either young people or retraining the older generation that is staying in the labor force longer – these are activities that would provide near-term juice for the economy.” Kajimoto and Leussink (2020) quickly had to report an about-face noting that “spending to cope with the fallout to the economy of the coronavirus outbreak would focus on support for small and mid-sized firms, and a slump in tourism.” Massive budget deficits will hinder the government from spending on education in general. Universities will be hard-pressed to bolster their labor budgets. Teachers, however, cannot be expected to work 24 hours a day responding to students by SMS, emails, and Zooming. The rehiring of relatively low-paid TAs to work evenings could maintain e-learning as part of the new normal. The 2021 academic year could be an opportunity to increase the use of ICT, whereby traditional classroom teaching is supported by TAs who can further guide home lessons taken remotely and on digital platforms.
Daizen, T. (2014, February). Teaching assistant (TA) handbook. Hiroshima University.
Harari, Y. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century. Spiegel & Grau.
Kajimoto, T. & Leussink, D. (2019, December 5). Japan launches $122 bln stimulus to fight trade risks, post-Olympic slump. Reuters.
Kajimoto, T. & Leussink, D. (2020, March 10). Japan announces $4 bln coronavirus package, not yet eyeing extra budget. Reuters.
O’Donoghue, J. (2020, April 21). In era of COVID-19, a shift to digital forms of teaching in Japan. The Japan Times.
Ohta, K. (2020, March 19). To all students of the college of arts and sciences and graduate school of arts and sciences. Retrieved from <https://www.c.u-tokyo.ac.jp/eng_site/fas/0319.pdf>
Osaka University. (2017). TA/TF system at Osaka University. Retrieved from <https://www.osaka-u.ac.jp/en/education/academic_reform/ta_tf>