5 Things OLC Won’t Tell You About IELOL


Mary Beth Messner, Associate Dean of Online Learning at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC

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The Online Learning Consortium’s Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) is no secret. Since 2009, this unique leadership program has brought together countless online learning professionals to collaborate and advance the evolving field of online learning. As a member of the most recent IELOL cohort (2023 – the BEST cohort ever), I want to share 5 things OLC won’t tell you about IELOL.

While its name is the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning, IELOL is not just for “new” leaders.

I remember hearing about IELOL in its early years and wanting to attend. Funding wasn’t available for me at that point in my career, but I was able to apply this year. I wasn’t sure if I would gain anything from the program. Wasn’t it designed for new leaders? I am so glad I applied! During a panel discussion at the Leadership Network Symposium (an optional piece of IELOL held at OLC’s Accelerate conference each year), the panel discussed how the field of online learning is still fairly new and as current leaders in the field, we are essentially “First Generation Online Practitioners.” The “Emerging” in IELOL’s name refers not only to new leaders but to the field of online learning leadership itself. Online learning leaders of all experience levels will benefit from participating in this program. If you’re wondering if it’s a good fit for you, it is!

IELOL is presented as having 3 parts, but there’s a secret 4th part!

OLC will tell you that there are three parts to IELOL: The online immersion, the in-person residency, and the implementation phase. These three components span a matter of months. My cohort began at the end of July, and IELOL officially concluded in November. What OLC won’t tell you about IELOL is that there’s actually a fourth part: the ongoing development and service as an IELOL alum. For many of us in the 2023 cohort, we began projects during the first three phases of IELOL that will continue beyond the official dates of the program. And this isn’t unusual! The networking doesn’t stop with the conclusion of the program. IELOL alumni have gone on to collaborate on presentations, projects, and even a book! They share expertise with each other through a tremendous network and with the greater online learning community by volunteering for various OLC conference activities – you’ll see alums serving as conference track chairs, presenting, and even winning awards!

You’ll have to answer hard questions.  

Now maybe this sounds like common sense, and you would expect that a several month-long leadership development program would ask some difficult questions of its participants. What I appreciated about IELOL is that while some of the content was familiar, such as knowing the importance of addressing your audience when communicating, it was framed in a way that required me to consider how I communicate as a leader to other leaders, which totally changed my perspective. IELOL participants are divided into project groups, and my group (Shoutout to Group 2!) was incredibly supportive in asking hard questions of each other as we developed our project plans. Addressing potential weaknesses and holes in our plans helped our plans evolve. This questioning comes from a place of support, and it forces you to make sure your plans are airtight so they can be successful. Moreover, each project group has an IELOL faculty mentor who will take it one step further and continue to challenge participants’ ideas, approaches, and plans. One of the most meaningful parts of IELOL for me was a one-on-one meeting with my mentor, Luke Dowden, where he asked me to consider worst-case scenarios and what steps I would take. To grow, you need people who will push you outside your comfort zone. I’m grateful for the hard questions.

As much as it is a challenge, IELOL is also a celebration! 

IELOL requires you to put in the work. You ask and answer the hard questions. You plan and revise. You present and revise and then consider starting all over and revise and make the plan happen. Through it all, your faculty mentor and group members are there to offer you support. OLC will tell you about the networking that takes place as part of IELOL, but they won’t tell you how that professional support can help you navigate challenges and remind you to celebrate all the little victories along the way! Having a group of people who support you and cheer you on is priceless. At this year’s Accelerate conference, I watched members of my IELOL cohort present, and it was amazing! Recognizing the potential in others and celebrating when they level up in both personal and professional ways is awesome, and your IELOL group will celebrate you!

IELOL is really hard to say. 

While IELOL may be hard to say (seriously – try saying it 3 times fast!), talking about the wonderful experiences you have as part of this program will never be a challenge. Ask any IELOL alum about their experience, and they’ll undoubtedly be able to share countless ways the program benefitted them as a leader.

OLC will tell you a number of things about IELOL, but it is impossible to capture the energy and lasting impact of this incredible program. The field of leadership in online learning is an emerging field, and IELOL is doing a tremendous job of giving leaders agency and space to continue driving it forward.

Submit your IELOL application for the 2024 cohort by January 26, 2024 to take advantage of the early bird rate. 

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