Leadership and Student Workers: We Learn From Each Other


 John Vivolo, Director of Online Education at the Katz School of Science and Health of Yeshiva University, and session presenter at OLC Innovate 2020

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Lecturer Raquel Lopez Assisting Students

This is the third in a series of blog posts entitled: Leadership in Online Learning. Each post will build toward an upcoming presentation at OLC Innovate 2020 in Chicago, IL. Join me for the Present and Reflect Session entitled: Online Learning Leadership and Support: Building the Structure and Keeping It Together on Thursday, April 2, at 2:15 PM. This is also a Best-in-Track session. For those who can’t make it in person, the session will also be live-streamed. Read the first two posts in this series.

Meet Earl

Student worker, computer engineer, educational technologist, all-around guru of everything technological and a genuine nice guy.

The year is 2013, and I’m interviewing dozens of students for a student worker position within the online learning unit at NYU. As Director of Online and Virtual Learning, I have a lot of ideas for innovating our online learning courses, and I need someone to help with the heavy lifting (mostly technological but some tasks involving lifting things).

After interviewing many nervous undergraduate (and grad) students, I felt exhausted. I wasn’t finding the right person. My colleague was also drudging through interviews for her marketing and student support team. She stopped by my desk and said, “I think I have one for you. He’s a better fit for your team.”

A few minutes later, Earl Co sat down with me. For the next hour, Earl proceeded to engage me with his deep background in technology and his expertise in being a “solution finder” for any technological need. In that hour, I knew I didn’t have just a student worker, I had a partner that would help me realize some of my often-grandiose plans or perhaps even knock my ideas down a peg.

The next day, I hired him, and the rest is history. Almost immediately, we put our brainstorming into practice with a trailblazing program entitled Live Virtual Learning, which involved live streaming high-quality video of on-campus classes to remote students. I knew what I wanted the learning experience to be like but wasn’t sure about the technological needs. While he researched equipment, I convinced department chairs and the vice-dean to let us pilot this new format. It worked! The program ran successfully for over three years, and at its peak, live streamed over 20 classes to hundreds of students (and made a lot of money for the school).

Online Learning Production Studio

One day, I turned to Earl and the other student workers and said, “I want to build an online learning production studio. How do we make it happen?” Their response, “What’s the budget?” I shrugged, “I have no idea. Let’s find out.” The student workers researched and found the best equipment for an affordable price. They knew the school wasn’t going to spend millions but maybe thousands. Once again, student workers didn’t see obstacles, they saw the opportunity to help their school. Give them freedom to lead and see where it goes became my mantra. Was I worried that few of them had video production experience? As Earl said in his chapter he graciously agreed to write for my book, “A well-assembled team should have a diverse background and skill set, particularly in the technical and creative areas of information technology and film and media production” (Co, 2019, p. 145).

Exit Earl

When Earl was preparing to graduate in 2016, I immediately had him interview for the newly created position called Educational Technologist. I had created the position to be “our Earl-like replacement”, and I was relieved to hear he wanted to stay on as full-time staff. I wasn’t going to let this type of talent go (and he needed a job as well).

After I left NYU, we continued to stay in contact, and I was happy to hear Earl went off to find his own exciting path as an entrepreneur. Even as I write this, I’m texting him to jog my memory of dates and things he did. I realize now that we aren’t just “boss” and “student/employee” anymore. We are friends and colleagues, and I have learned just as much from him as he has perhaps from me.

The Role of Student Workers

This was my first lesson in the importance of student workers. I learned that as a leader and “expert” in online learning, I didn’t know everything. I could come up with innovative ideas, but we don’t realize ideas in a bubble. We need to rely on fresh minds who have levels of expertise that match or differ from our own.

Give them the Chance to Learn, not Just Lift Heavy Things

I didn’t just give student workers tasks to do, I encouraged them to learn as much as possible about online learning, media production, and anything else I could teach them. We need to add some animation to our online courses. Who wants to learn how to create animation with Adobe After Effects? Use some of your hours and teach yourself. Who wants to take a professional development workshop? I’ll pay for it, but let’s see how you can apply this to our work in online learning. Every student who worked for me walked away with skills and experiences that enhanced their resume and helped them standout from all the other newly minted graduates.

Building Bridges

My stepfather once told me, “Don’t burn bridges at work, build them even to people you never thought you would connect with.” This twist on an old cliché always stuck with me. As educational leaders, we are sitting in a pool of brilliant minds not yet beaten down by the drudgery of office politics or administrative bureaucracy that can sometimes infect our innovative spirit. These student minds, while often naive to the internal workings of a school, offer us a glimpse at a world without limits. They are not just people who can do the “grunt” work we don’t want to, nor do the heavy lifting. No, they do a different type of heavy lifting that can help us in ways we never even considered: innovation and invention.

Today, I’m lucky enough to work at the Katz School of Science and Health, at Yeshiva University, a place of innovation and invention. Students coming in will find faculty and staff that care about their well-being and certainly willing to listen to their ideas. Perhaps soon I’ll find my new Earl here at Katz.

Want to learn more about online learning leadership?

If you like the story of Earl, I invite you to pick up a copy of my recently published, best-selling book: Managing Online Learning: The Life-Cycle of Successful Programs. Earl wrote a wonderful chapter highlighting his extraordinary breadth of knowledge entitled: Lights, Camera, Online: Building an Online Learning Studio to Support Next-Generation Course Development.

Pick up a copy or digital download at any online bookstore or Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Managing-Online-Learning-Life-Cycle-Successful/dp/1138364754/ref=sr_1_4?keywords=online+learning&qid=1582914463&sr=8-4

Also, connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnvivolo/

And connect with Earl Co on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/earlco/

Next Post

The next post will dig into how we engage with staff day-to-day and keeping them happy and engaged. Look for the next post entitled: What is the job of a leader? It’s not to tell people what to do.

If you want to learn more about the online learning leadership, join me at OLC Innovate in Chicago, IL. See you in the threads!


Co, E. (2019). Lights, Camera, Online: Building an Online Learning Studio to Support Net-Generation Course Development. Managing Online Learning: The Life-Cycle of Successful Programs, 141. New York, NY: Routledge.


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John Vivolo, Director of Online Education at the Katz School of Science and Health of Yeshiva University, and session presenter at OLC Innovate 2020.


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