12 Jun 2020

Managing Through Crisis: The Online Learning Facilitator Experience—a Q+A with Sarah Descheneaux

Sarah Descheneaux

by Shona Simkin

Once the decision was made to move class instruction online for the remainder of the academic year, one very important role was created: Online Learning Facilitators (OLF). The OLF would partner with a specific faculty member and course, and support that class session on Zoom, managing everything from class participation to sharing materials to technical support. Human Resources sent out a call for staff OLF volunteers in early March, and the (virtual) hands raised up throughout the School. We learned about the concepts behind and management of OLFs in our Q+A with Janelle Mills, and wanted to hear what the experience was like firsthand, so we dialed in for a Zoom interview with Sarah Descheneaux, a unit coordinator in the Division of Research and Faculty Development (DRFD).

Why did you decide to volunteer as an OLF?
As a unit coordinator, the OLF position seemed to fit closely with what I already do. I support faculty who are running Required Curriculum (RC) courses, specifically finance. I sit in on their teaching group meetings, set up the course website for students, distribute course materials, and make sure everyone has what they need. When the call for OLF volunteers went out, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the courses that I was already involved with.

What was the time commitment, and how did it fit in with your everyday work?
I did feel concerned about the amount of work that was required, so I asked to be paired with a Finance (FIN) faculty member. That worked out; I was paired with the FIN 2 course head, Professor Carl Kester, who I had been working with all year.

Working remotely was actually helpful; I had longer periods of time to really focus on being in class since I knew I didn’t have to be anywhere else physically. And, because I was already working with Professor Kester I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about being unavailable for several hours each day because we’d be in the same class, together. I was also familiar with the content, and could quickly pull materials up to share. It ended up being a real partnership.

In terms of actual time, my particular class ran 1 hour 20 minutes, and met either two or three times a week depending on the week. We held 12 remote class sessions total. Outside of class, the time really changed over the semester as I became more familiar with Zoom and the role.

What was training like?
It was such a whirlwind at first, figuring out what it would be like when everyone went remote! The RC finance course was one of the first courses that trained faculty on Zoom, and we were still on campus, which was very lucky. It was helpful to have a tech train us in person. Our course head was one of the first professors to pilot his section on Zoom, so I had a great firsthand look at what the online learning experience would be like. The IT team was fantastic. I attended five or six specialized trainings in the first week, for things like breakout rooms and advanced breakout rooms, chat features, and screen sharing. And the OLFs in my unit had practice sessions amongst ourselves so that we could work on some of the more complicated and less intuitive features.

And how was it, when the class did go live?
You hear all the time “You don’t know what you don’t know,” but it was really true! Even with all of our practice, the scale of the live class was so different. The practice sessions were 10 people, and then you're in a classroom with more than 90 students. After the first week of class a lot of OLFs helped each other practice more. Professor Kester and I would connect for 30-40 minutes before each class to talk about what he was planning for that day, and we’d practice screen and slide sharing so that we could make sure that we could each see what we were sharing and writing. We practiced breakout rooms, and how to pause the recording, and we had a waiting room so that students couldn’t accidentally pop in on our prep work.

You were a Faculty Support Specialist (FSS) before your current role--was that experience helpful?
Absolutely. The FSSs and unit coordinators are in a really great position for translating to the OLF role because we have a good understanding of faculty and their work, as well as the courses and student interaction. Even though we're not physically in the classroom, we get to know so many students through meetings, emails, and their independent projects. So I had a good sense of what the classroom experience was like, which really helped.

And how about the reverse, has the OLF role informed your current role?
Definitely. Seeing the faculty interaction and content delivery firsthand really allowed me to understand my role in the course better, and how I could enhance the class experience. It has helped me prep for teaching group meetings and schedules, and ensure that everyone has what they need.

What were some of the challenges?
Communication. It's tough to not be able to swing by someone's office or drop in. And personally, socially, I miss the office environment and being able to talk with colleagues. We have a lot of regular check-ins to see how we're all doing but it's not the same. Since the semester ended and I'm not an OLF anymore, I notice it even more.

Have there been any bright spots?
All of the innovations and the ways that people are connecting has been really amazing. When we first went remote, it was great to see how smoothly the teams worked together. I feel very lucky to be connected to so many departments. Seeing them all work together and have such crossover was really exciting. Everyone was positive and supportive and helpful. It expanded the classroom experience in a new way--I knew the theory behind the classes, but this allowed me to experience the day to day challenges and figure out solutions. Without going remote I don't know that I'd ever have had that experience.

My biggest takeaway was really getting to know the faculty and students. It was a great collaboration. The overall partnership was such a great experience and made me appreciate how much this role meant.

The OLF support from Janelle Mills (associate director of MBA and Student Services), Willis Emmons (senior lecturer, director of the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning), and Andrea Lam (Executive Education support specialist), as well as the entire IT team, was amazing. There were Slack channels, twice weekly check-ins, and end-of-day messages with key things that had come up. They were right there with us, and I am so grateful.

How have you been taking care of yourself through the pandemic and stay at home orders?
My husband and I have really taken this opportunity to investigate local walking and hiking trails that are open but not crowded. On one walk we saw an owl and her owlet, which was so exciting! Usually at this time of year we're going out in downtown Boston, so this is a nice alternative. I've also gotten much more interested in podcasts, our favorites right now are Ologies and Life is Short.

What’s next?
All of us in faculty support roles are busy thinking about what the fall is going to look like. We're really trying to fine tune, organize, and document all of our processes. I always spend the summer resetting--I create a calendar for the year with anticipated events and prepare for courses and faculty recruiting. It’s a bit different now that I'm not just down the hall from someone and can't pop into a faculty member's office with a question or thought, so there's more preparation involved. But I know that as a team, we will be able to tackle whatever the fall semester brings!

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