08 Apr 2020

Managing Through Crisis: The Critical Role of Online Learning Facilitators—a Q+A with Janelle Mills

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Janelle Mills

One of the key elements of success in the switch to online learning due to the coronavirus has been the role of our volunteer Online Learning Facilitators (OLFs). OLFs manage and host the Zoom platform for each class, manage class participation traffic, share documents and videos with students, set up and monitor breakout rooms as necessary, and provide support to the faculty to ensure the discussions flow smoothly. In the space of 10 days, the team of OLFs had to be identified, scheduled, trained, and ready to go when students returned from spring break on March 23. We sat down with Associate Director of MBA Student and Academic Services Janelle Mills, who manages the OLF team and is an OLF for two seminars herself, to ask about how it is going.

What is your usual role, and how has it shifted with the switch to online learning?
I work in the MBA program office with Student & Academic Services on the program delivery team. We support the co-curricular programs like ISDL, START, SIPs, and Bridges. We're very hands-on, preparing classrooms and working closely with faculty to deliver these more field-method courses to 930 students. I was asked if I could help schedule the OLFs, so I began working with HR on figuring out how the OLF’s availability would align with classes.

What were some of those considerations and complications?
The goal was to have as much consistency as possible for a course or faculty member. If one faculty member was teaching two sections of a course, we tried to have one person support both sections. If we couldn’t find one, we tried to ensure that two people could support the sections for the entire term. Andrea Cardarelli, assistant director, Registrar Services, and I pored over spreadsheets to figure out how people's availability lined up with our unique classroom structure. Our classes don’t operate on a regular Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule. So we really had to line up each OLF with each class very specifically.

And then, of course, everything keeps evolving. At that point, when we had the schedule figured out, the governor hadn't announced the stay-at-home order. Social distancing was in place but staff was still on campus. Once the stay-at-home order was announced, and we switched to remote work, many volunteers had to withdraw because of childcare issues or other work demands. We realized we had to have alternates who could substitute for an OLF who had a conflict, or in the worst-case scenario, if someone got sick. We’re working on building our capacity so that we can continue to support the courses.

What have these the first two weeks of classes been like?
Week one, particularly Monday (Virtual day one), was really intense. We all made a few mistakes, but by the second day, we were fine. We learned so much from day one to day two--things that were stressful on day one were extremely minimal on the second day. In week two, we began to see more issues about establishing classroom norms, or what to do when Zoom or Kaltura has a little blip during class. Issues that are out of our control are now emerging as opposed to the things that are within our control. We’re also seeing faculty wanting to take Zoom to the next level to try and elevate the classroom experience. Some of those faculty members have created an advanced remote learning Slack channel for people to communicate about those next level service thoughts and share ideas.

Has there been anything that has been particularly helpful for you and the OLFs?
The support from IT has been incredible. From establishing training sessions on Zoom (thank you, Marsha Whitman, instructional design consultant) to establishing and supporting new Slack channels (thank you, Kim Shane, online learning manager, HBS Online), it’s been just amazing. We also had wonderful guidance and assistance from staff and faculty in the Harvard Business Analytics program to help faculty, OLFs, and Faculty Support Specialists (FSS) get acclimated to online learning. I’ve also have had the help of Andrea Lam, program specialist with Executive Education. She has been fantastic in helping organize the back-end processes and documents needed to be able to act quickly when additional support is requested.

Our dedicated Slack channel has been a wonderful way to share information and trouble-shoot in real time. If an OLF has a problem in a class, they can label it as “urgent” on Slack, and an IT team member responds quickly to help them through the issue. We also see best practices popping up, and a lot of collaboration and a real sense of community. It allows us to connect across and within departments for support. Sandrine Crener-Ricard, a portfolio director in Executive Education, has been collecting all the best practices and Q&A in Slack into a Word document every day. I send that to all OLFs, along with a report about the day and anything else that might be valuable--student feedback, or faculty appreciation. We want to make sure the team knows how valued and important they are!

What's next?
Probably more settling in. Seminars have only had two classes, while those in the RC curriculum will have quite a few sessions by the end of this week. That means that there are different trajectories in terms of comfort levels and interest in trying new technologies and capabilities with the Zoom environment. For OLFs, I think things are pretty consistent right now, so we’re really looking to continue to build our OLF community and be consistent in our communications. The first week we were saying "we can do it, we can figure it out," the second week it was "how do we make this more streamlined, and be more helpful to each other?" This week maybe we’ll see more introductions of new technologies. I also expect many faculty members will be interested in turning this experience into cases to help other educational institutions forward their virtual classroom teachings.

What have been some bright spots?
It’s been a very positive experience! I’m in awe of how many volunteered to support this effort and how IT teams have coalesced with them to support the virtual classroom delivery. It’s been incredible to see how quickly we've been able to move into this environment and adapt. I’ve been at HBS for almost 20 years, and there are so many new people I’ve met through this--working with them in this capacity has been wonderful. To see staff take on this new role, to witness their energy and willingness to create a successful classroom experience, it’s simply a wonderful thing. I feel honored to be part of this process.

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