The Many Hats of Online Education: An Interview with Leslie Fischer

by Dolly Lemke

In every job I have had, my job description varied depending on the day or the project or who was on my team. That holds true for being a Learning Designer as well, where I am project manager, trainer, researcher, collaborator, among other roles. Faculty developers take on additional roles in the course development process as well. Leslie Fischer is a 30 year teaching veteran at Northwestern University, teaching classes in literature, communication, research, and writing. She has embodied the role of teacher by embracing the interconnected roles of mentor, facilitator, creator, and learner. She is also a student in the Information Design and Strategy program in the Learning Design specialization and a faculty developer for the School of Professional Studies. I interviewed Leslie about the three main roles she plays at Northwestern and how they influence and intersect with each other.

You play three main roles at Northwestern: instructor, developer, and student. Can you describe those roles and your main responsibilities for each? 

As an instructor, I teach face-to-face, hybrid and online courses for the Cook Family Writing Program and for the School of Professional Studies. I am responsible for a wide variety of courses in communication, technical writing, business writing, research writing, literature, and design for students from pre-freshmen through the master’s degree level.

As a developer, I am responsible for designing effective instructional approaches and learning environments that meet the needs of the learners who will join me in the literal or figurative classroom. Since I work with such a broad variety of students in different formats, this varies quite a bit.

Finally, as a student in the Information Design and Strategy program, I focus on Learning Design. However, my learning goes beyond the course materials that I study. I find it very instructive to be a student and to talk frankly with other students, so I can identify the pain points of that experience and plan for those as I teach and develop courses.

How do these roles differ and/or intersect from term to term?

These roles intersect during most terms; in the classroom, I am often learning as much as the students. Each term, I always acquire and incorporate new approaches to help learners learn. With the rate at which information is growing and changing, I cannot impart all the answers, but I can educate learners how to locate and assess information, how to synthesize reliable information and apply it to build new knowledge. I can put a support system into place, so students can gain confidence as they practice new techniques and ways of thinking, so they can make informed judgments and create new approaches.

My educational philosophy emphasizes students’ abilities to learn independently. This is important because learners are not always going to be in school when they need to learn—education is a lifelong quest.

How do these roles influence each other? Are certain roles more/less influential on each other than others?

The roles work together equally; it’s an iterative process. Something I try as an instructor may inform my work as a student or I’m introduced to a concept as a student that makes its way into a course I develop. My experiences and conversations in one sector inform those in the other two, building richer experiences and conversations over time.

How is your teaching, developing, and learning influenced by managing all three roles?

The management of the roles is sometimes a challenge. As a student, I may forget that it’s not my responsibility to “fix” something. However, I think taking on the role of the student is an effective pedagogical approach because it helps the learners I mentor to take responsibility for educating themselves—with my guidance and support, of course.

How does being an online student influence your perception of and the way you manage an online learning environment?

I take much less for granted when I am developing a learning environment. This makes me more sensitive to where learners should be expending their energies. If their cognitive powers are busy just understanding basic Canvas navigation or how to prioritize course activities, learners are not focusing on course content. The ease of the learning environment itself is important to support the difficult work of conceptualization and development of knowledge.

What assessments or contributions did your current students make to the development of this online course?

As I was developing an online version of Literature and Leadership, I was fortunate to be teaching the hybrid version. These were students I had worked with previously in another course, so we had a good working relationship. Every other week when we met face-to-face, I would ask what the takeaways were from the course materials and take notes. Then I asked myself how my intentions aligned with what actually happened; this was very helpful as I refined the online course. A contribution those students made to the new course was their answers to the question, “If you were writing to the next cohort of students in the Organization Behavior: Leadership program, what arguments would you make about why leaders should study literature?” Some of their answers made it into the pre-instructional material that introduces Literature and Leadership.

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