Designing With a ‘Why’ in Mind: The Story of OLC’s Regional Colloquies


Madeline Shellgren (Director of Community Strategy and Engagement & IELOL Global Program Director, Online Learning Consortium)

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In her opening remarks at the inaugural Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) Global Regional Colloquy, Online Learning Consortium Board of Directors President Dr. Elizabeth Ciabocchi asked every participant to think about the following: “Why are we gathering here today? Why is it significant that three distinct organizations are partnering on an event like this Regional Colloquy? Why should we care about what is happening with respect to change work around the world (in this case in Ghana and specifically at KNUST) and how does this impact me?” In response she offered two primary anchors to guide us as we embarked on our programmatic journey together:

  1. We cannot do this work alone.
  2. Our perspective is only ever partial; we do not and will not ever know everything…about anything, and as a result, there will always be an opportunity to learn from others.

As I listened to those words, it inspired me to answer them for myself and share the story from the organizing perspective on the why behind this IELOL Global Regional Colloquy event, “Transforming Educational Futures Through Innovation in West Africa.”  

Now, I must confess that I have already written about the OLC’s why before. Excitingly, a report myself and colleague Angela Gunder (OLC’s Chief Academic Officer) wrote about the impact of the IELOL Global Ecosystem was accepted as an open knowledge product contribution to the 3rd UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) database. I won’t retell the entire story we shared there, but I will quote a brief section of it for reference here. We wrote:

In light of recent responses to COVID-19 and the global emergency shift to remote educational models, it became clear that countries and regions that historically did not have the infrastructure to support online learning prior to the pandemic face even more significant challenges accessing quality education. In the case of the OLC, we saw an uptick in engagement from international partners looking to leverage our services. As we engage in these partnerships, though, it is paramount that we lean into opportunities to learn from one another. We must not forget the relative inequities we each face today globally with respect to advancing access to quality digital learning. For instance, in the United States alone, “approximately 19 million Americans—6 percent of the population—still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population—14.5 million people—lack access to this service” (Federal Communications Commission, n.d.). With this in mind, we must develop strategies and spaces to meaningfully engage in the amplification of a plurality of voices so that we can truly leverage collaborative and critical dialogues for change. By doing so, we will not only be able to identify locally situated challenges and needs but work to address inequities everywhere. (Shellgren & Gunder 2022, pg. 9)

Sitting with data like this is an important reminder that the world over faces challenges related to access to quality digital learning. Some of you reading this might think that this statement is self-evident or obvious, but I personally think dwelling on the implications that arise from truly acknowledging this is a worthy pursuit. Beyond this, it is the opportunities that come from understanding the world’s solutions and approaches to addressing these challenges that I believe constitute a core reason why we cannot ignore the work of reflecting on those implications. 

Just the other day, I was set to meet with a colleague from South Africa to talk about our ongoing partnership and new initiatives. He never showed, but that’s not completely out of the ordinary for our colleagues from South Africa, due to load shedding (a process of rolling power outages). I am not positioned to speak on the relative benefits or downsides to load shedding as I have never experienced them, so I won’t. However, I can speak to my own experiences in learning about them and particularly the benefits of gaining an understanding of the implications of load shedding on educational models in South Africa. Imagine having to design educational models that accommodate unexpected periods of widespread power outages. Above I referenced a statistic about access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds in the United States. This is a significant problem that absolutely needs to be addressed if we are to prioritize equitable access to online learning in the U.S. That said, I can’t ignore the possibilities that might come from weaving this data together. What outcomes might arise if educational leaders in the United States positioned themselves to learn intentionally from South African models of access? 

Again, and importantly, I am not suggesting that we table or drop the issue of access to fixed broadband service in the U.S. in favor of educational models designed around things like widespread power outages. But I do recognize that systemic change takes time and requires the collaborative efforts of many, across stakeholder groups (and frankly, we aren’t always that great at collaborating). But as we contend with the now, because this is urgent – today’s educational models are not equitable and not just – there is simply too much we can learn from each other to not intentionally engage in global coalitions for change within and across the world of online, blended, and digital learning. And in the case of the example I share here, South African educators have developed models and are actively engaged in solutions to address this challenge. And we as educators, regardless of where in the world we are located, can learn from these models.

So what can we do now to advance universal access to quality digital learning? And how might the greater project of global coalition building support a collective intent to collaboratively design a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just future of online, blended, digital, and flexible learning?

So this is our why. We recognize that we do not know everything and that we cannot do this work alone. Moreover, we are fortunate to have many amazing colleagues from around the world committed to this same pursuit. This is also the answer to why this current Regional Colloquy is so exciting and so significant. It is an opportunity to further learn from others around the world, and not only deepen the commitment to global collaborations, but act on it. We are grateful to our colleagues from the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC) and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) for sharing their stories and expertise, dedicating their time to collaborating with us, and for all that we have already learned from them. We are also grateful for the event sponsors, Carolina Distance Learning, Labster, and Coursetune, as well as the support of the U.S. Department of State (and specifically the U.S. Embassy in Ghana). Their contributions to this program, and the scholarships they resulted in, mean a truly more accessible event.

In closing, I invite you to join us in this work. You can read more about the OLC’s partnership with TIEC and KNUST in this blogpost. Registrations for the Regional Colloquy are also still open (you can register here). Finally, the work continues through the IELOL Global Core Program, a cohort-based leadership development program set to kickoff in September (you can learn more about that opportunity here).  


Federal Communications Commission. (n.d.). Eighth broadband progress report.,lack%20access%20to%20this%20service.

Shellgren, M., Gunder, A. (2022). Advancing universal access to quality digital learning through global coalitions and narrative practices. Online Learning Consortium.


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