Meet the Digital Learning Team
Our team is here to serve anyone interested in online courses and programs at Mason, including current and prospective students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Whether you are a student looking to enroll online or a faculty member interested in developing online versions of your courses or programs, we are happy to assist you.
Executive Director for Online Operations
Through focused planning and collaboration, Charles is committed to creating focused, high-quality, academic programs that are designed to respond to the changing educational and workforce needs of the region. With a background in product management and online operations, Charles provides cross-functional leadership to the Stearns Center and online initiatives at George Mason University.
Fun facts: Charles has traveled a lot and loves to cook foods from all over the world—and if it’s not spicy, he doesn’t bother! He’d choose flight over invisibility, and if he were a tree he would be an oak so he could have all of the acorns he wanted (also squirrels are cool, even if they are rats with good fashion sense).
Thomas Ayers, PhD
Director for Online Operations
As the Director for Online Operations, Tom leads the daily operations for Mason Online, providing cross-functional leadership among academic units, student services, enrollment operations and external partners including the day-to-day supervision of the OPM portfolio of graduate programs.
Prior to coming to Mason, Tom spent over 10 years leading and teaching in online programs. Six years were spent at the dean/associate dean level in the Community College space, and two years in proprietary education as a vice president of education. Tom served for 21 years in a variety of administrative and academic roles at Barry University, including Executive Associate Dean of the Adult School, Assistant Dean, Assistant Professor of Organizational Leadership, and Assistant Professor of Information Technology.
Tom received his PhD in Leadership and Education from Barry University where he also studied Computer Education and Business Administration at the graduate level, and he holds a master’s degree from Harvard University in Sustainability and Environmental Management where he also studied Computer Science at the graduate level.
Tom loves to travel, cook, spend time entertaining family and friends, and catching a Broadway show as often as he can. Tom’s professional interests also include Open Educational Resources (OER), Competency-Based Education (CBE) and digital courseware.
Key strengths: Leadership, Online Learning, Academic Operations, Problem Solving, Change Management, Project Management and Strategic Planning.
Faisal Mahmud, PhD
Director for Digital Learning
As the Director for Digital Learning, Faisal oversees faculty and program support related to the development of Mason’s online programs, co-leads Stearns Center, and holds a leadership role in initiatives pertaining to the coordination, planning, administration, assessment, and improvement of programs offered through Mason Online. He is also responsible for managing the overall portfolio of online programs.
Coming from engineering, technology, research, and project management background, Faisal is an immense supporter and promoter of innovative, data-driven, and evidence-based teaching and learning. He holds a PhD in Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, a Master of Engineering in Modeling and Simulation, and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, from Old Dominion University. Previously, he worked at ODU Distance Learning, Experiential Learning and Testing Center, and Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), a few to mention. He actively publishes and presents research papers in scholarly journals and international conferences. Faisal also taught graduate and undergraduate courses in f2f, hybrid, and online mode.
Faisal is an avid traveler, entrepreneur, and digital content creator. He enjoys photography and creative work in his spare time.
Darlene Smucny, PhD
Assistant Director for Digital Learning
Darlene’s focus is on quality in online courses and programs, including online faculty development, services, and support. As part of the Stearns Center Digital Learning Quality Assurance team, she conducts online course audits and reviews at Mason to guide online course and teaching improvements. With her 20 years of experience in online teaching, Darlene offers an instructor’s perspective to faculty. She shares guidance, practical tips, and resources for teaching and facilitating online courses and actionable feedback for course improvement.
Darlene received her PhD in Anthropology from UCLA. After years as a biomedical researcher, Darlene then assumed a career in higher education administration and teaching. Before Mason, she worked at the University of Maryland University College (now University of Maryland Global Campus) as the Academic Director of the social science online undergraduate program. She managed faculty and oversaw the design, redesign, and quality of courses social science undergraduate degree program. She also taught online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses as a collegiate professor and was recognized by the university for engaging and learner-centered teaching.
Darlene’s professional interests include quality assurance of online courses & teaching, inclusive and equitable teaching, compassionate teaching, and teaching and learning of contemporary students. She is a member of the Online Learning Consortium, EDUCAUSE, and the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education. She is a Quality Matters (QM) certified peer reviewer of online courses and a Blackboard Exemplary Course reviewer.
Key Strengths: Learner, Ideation, Intellection, Input, Individualization
Larisa Olesova, PhD
Senior Instructional Designer
With over 20 years of teaching experience in the U.S. and Russia, Larisa has expertise in the traditional classroom and online. Her professional and research interests focus on distance education, working with faculty on aspects such as online presence, the Community of Inquiry (CoI), instructional strategies, and best practices in online teaching.
Her published works include Feedback in Online Course for Non-Native English-Speaking Students, chapters in Creating Teacher Immediacy in Online Learning Environments and Assessment in Online and Blended Learning Environments, and articles in various online education journals. Larisa received her PhD in Learning Design and Technology from Purdue University.
Key Strengths: Strategic, Maximizer, Ideation, Significance, Focus
Senior Instructional Designer
Ala started her career as an ESL faculty and, after a short segue to the corporate world, fell in love with instructional design while working at Mason. Her 15+ year career in higher education equipped her with skills in project management, web and media design, e-learning development, and a variety of tools and software that help online courses become alive, effective and engaging.
Her instructional design practice is driven by passion and best practices in online learning grounded in research. Ala holds a MEd in Instructional Design and Technology and an e-learning graduate certificate from Mason. Prior to her position at Mason, she was a member of NOVA’s instructional design team, supporting over 23,000 students in 550 unique courses. Ala is a Quality Matters (QM) certified peer reviewer of online courses. Her research interests include media design, technology for second language acquisition, brain-based learning and student engagement in online environments.
Key Strengths: Learner, Achiever, Activator, Relator
Monisha brings over fifteen years of work experience in instructional design, training, and quality assurance, with application in both higher education and corporate settings. In her role, she provides design support to Mason faculty members who are teaching classes online. She also assists with curriculum planning, provides ongoing support to ensure learner-centric instruction, and engages in the online course review process, working with faculty members on continuous course improvement efforts.
Monisha received her MEd in Instructional Design and Technology from Mason. Her specialties and professional interests include curriculum development, adult learning theory, online class development, online instruction, and quality assurance.
Key Strengths: Communication, Arranger, Relator, Positivity, Harmony
Laura J. Todd
Formerly a high school teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, Laura currently supports GMU faculty with pedagogy and course redesign for fully asynchronous online instruction. Laura earned her BA in Spanish from James Madison University, and her MA in Education (Curriculum & Instruction) from the University of Phoenix Online, and a Graduate Certificate in e-Learning from GMU. In December 2021, she completed an Undergraduate Certificate in Information Technology.
Key Strengths: Organization, Connectedness, Problem-solving, Adaptability
Jade Geary, EdD
Jade started her career in higher education as a librarian. She quickly learned how much she had to learn about pedagogy and instructional practices to aid in teaching students in instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses. This lead to her pursuing her Doctorate of Education at the University of South Carolina while working as an Instructional Design Librarian. Jade has a passion for making sure that information is available to all. This includes ensuring that students are provided with the best possible learning situations via instructional design principles.
Jade obtained her EdD in Curriculum and Instruction with an Ed Tech focus from the University of South Carolina. Her focus includes critical pedagogy, educational technology, adult learning theory, online learning, OER, and information literacy. She also received a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina, a Bachelors of Arts in English, and a Bachelors of Arts in Women and Gender Studies from the College of Charleston.
In her free time, Jade loves to travel with her husband, dive into a good book, and walk their two Great Pyrenees dogs.
Key Strengths: Input, Positivity, Includer, Futuristic, Adaptability
A monumental turning point in Catesby’s life happened at age 16. “The Russians were coming” to Fredericksburg, VA, the small town where she and her family lived. She volunteered to host a Russian student and participated in the reciprocal exchange to Kaliningrad, Russia, knowing none of the language and little of the culture. It opened her mind to different world views and gave her a whole new appreciation of what hospitality and sacrifice meant. She was always a curious, passionate learner and became a curious, passionate educator, eventually transitioning to a career in instructional design.
Catesby majored in Russian at Georgetown University and lived abroad for several years. She got her M.Ed. in TESOL and taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in San Diego, CA, and Northern Virginia. She received a Graduate Certificate in e-Learning from George Mason University in 2019 and appreciates the challenges and rewards of education utilizing multiple platforms. She draws from her experience as student, teacher, trainer, and instructional designer and focuses on student-centered learning in whatever she creates, always aware of ever-changing technology and her responsibility to meet the needs of the target audience.
Catesby is humbled and excited to be a part of the Stearns Center staff and Mason community. In her free time, she watches Russian movies, listens to country music, exercises in nature, does Pilates, and travels. Learning to play the ukulele is her next endeavor.
Mariya started her career as an elementary educator and grew into her role as an Instructional Designer, Developer, and Trainer. While teaching, she quickly developed a passion for the effective use and integration of technology in all classroom environments. She spent years designing visually interactive web-based instructional materials, redesigning course materials for educators to create more collaborative f2f, virtual, and hybrid environments, and providing innovative design solutions to increase learner engagement and understanding.
Mariya holds an M.Ed. in Educational Technology (concentration in Instructional Design and theory) from James Madison University and constantly seeks professional growth opportunities. To stay creative and informed, she frequently researches and explores the use of digital tools to specialize in skills such as: Learning Management System administration, instructional design and development, adult learning theory, game design, digital illustration, animation, video production, and User Experience Design. She strives to use these skills to create learner-centered, visually engaging learning experiences, where even the most complex concepts are understandable and accessible to all learners.
In her spare time, Mariya enjoys traveling, hiking, petting all domesticated animals, digital content creation, and photography.
Debasmita Giri Jana
Debasmita has nearly 20 years of teaching and training experience. She served as a software trainer and educator, handling computer science for high school and college kids. She continued to grow in her role as a coordinator and content developer for middle school computer science curriculum. She has been a technical trainer for federal and corporate clients In DC and Virginia and an instructional technology specialist at NOVA.
She has a Masters in Computer Science and a Masters in Mathematics. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Instructional Design and Technology from George Mason University.
Charlotte provides assistance and support to the Office of Digital Learning through a diverse range of administrative responsibilities. Her role includes managing the Mason Online and Stearns Center websites, acting as a general liaison to students through phone and email communication, providing support for events and special projects, budgeting for the office, and working in collaboration with all staff in the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning.
Charlotte graduated from the University of South Carolina in May 2018 with a BS in Sport and Entertainment Management. She is currently pursuing her MS in Data Analytics Engineering at George Mason.
Key Strengths: Input, Individualization, Empathy, Developer, Learner
Office Manager, Stearns Center
Sylvia has worked sixteen years in administration and eleven years at Vanderbilt University Medical Center before relocating back to Virginia in 2018. Sylvia holds a bachelor’s degree in social work and is an artist with a focus on mixed-media sculpting. She is also an avid animal lover. Her strengths are organization and creativity along with a willingness to help whenever needed.