The Global Community That Rekindled My Sense of Purpose


Madeline R. Shellgren, Director of Global Outreach, Online Learning Consortium

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I haven’t talked about this often in a public forum, but I got a little burnt out two years ago. There’s several factors that lead to burnout, but the biggest one for me, as I discovered, was losing a sense of purpose and direction in what I was doing for work. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the programming I was designing and running and absolutely loved the people I got to work with. Even still, I was feeling like I had met a wall professionally and wasn’t exactly sure how to get around that wall.

Last year, however, I also had an opportunity to travel. I traveled to Norway for the ICDE’s Lillehammer Lifelong Learning Conference and to Ireland for EDEN’s 2023 Annual Conference. I was also scheduled to attend ICDE World Conference 2023 in Costa Rica, though ultimately couldn’t due to a sudden family emergency. What I found at these conferences (even in the lead up to the World Conference) was an infectious community. I was surrounded by people from different regions of the world who brought diverse cultural, social, and scholarly perspectives. This helped to genuinely reinvigorate me and inspire me all over again. This feeling was what brought me to the OLC in the first place (i.e. being surrounded by people who challenged me intellectually, who I couldn’t wait to jump into a conversation with about online learning, who inspired me to dream up the next innovation or design the next approach to learning and engagement). So there I was, once again, feeling surrounded by people who, in this case, are dedicated globally to the conversation around online learning; people who truly want to help bring about a better, more diverse, equitable, inclusive, accessible, and quality teaching and learning future within and across the world of online, blended, digital, distance, flexible, and open learning. People who are committed to and excited by collaborating across countries, across languages, across institutions…across the range of identities and geographic, organizational, and structural boundaries that so often prevent us from engaging in truly collaborative work on a global scale. I found myself with a sense of purpose once again, a feeling that reached a pinnacle in 2023 at OLC’s 3rd annual Global Leadership Impact Summit

With over 527 registrants from 33 countries around the world, the Global Leadership Impact Summit was a culminating experience hosted by the OLC in December 2023 that offered ten total hours of programming across two days that explored the tremendous power of global coalitions and partnerships in surmounting challenges to educational access. The event brought together, once again, this community of educators and leaders I spoke of just above. Together we convened for dialogue and collaboration around the global future of online learning. The work they detailed throughout the event was truly inspiring and serves as a model and an important reminder…no, more significant than a reminder…evidence for folx interested in doing this work, evidence that it is possible and that there are others out there committed equally to investing in this dialogue and in the inevitable work of engaging across so many stakeholder groups in order to ensure that we are advancing educational futures through a deep commitment to engaging with, hearing, listening to, and valuing the voices and perspectives across the field.

This blogpost offers a recap of the event, but more so than anything, I share my personal highlights, what I took away from the event and how the event inspired me. I share in this way in the hopes of connecting with others looking to engage in this work with us.

I’ll start first by sharing this: thanks to a generous sponsorship from Instructure, we were able to subsidize the cost of registration and offer the event for free. In full transparency, yes…Instructure were event sponsors and yes…a post-event blogpost was on the list of deliverables for their sponsorship agreement. That said, thanking them would have been on my list regardless because I am of the personal and professional opinion that when talking about partners and collaborators in our work, we should include vendors and sponsors, and we should be particularly talking about the organizations or entities that fund our work because the act of funding means something. It’s one thing to put your name behind an event; it’s another thing to contribute money to ensure that the event can take place. The Global Leadership Impact Summit wasn’t OLC’s largest offering of the year, and yet Instructure still wanted to contribute to it. And of all the events they could have considered across the field (or even when looking at other offerings open for sponsorship that the OLC had at the time), Instructure chose to sponsor the Global Leadership Impact Summit. To me this means something, and demonstrates their commitment to global coalition building around the future of online learning.

The event began with a keynote session led by Ms. Torunn Gjelsvik, Secretary General for the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE). It was full of wonderful storytelling about the history of ICDE and the field, leveraging her own background and experiences to remind us that learning is personal and that it is the equitable development of humans around the world that connect us all as educators. Her session made me smile, it made me think, and it helped bring me back to my motivations for doing the work I do: meeting people where they are and helping to support their growth and development, and that cliché but oh so apt reminder that I want to help make the world a better place.

Her keynote address was followed by two back-to-back “provocations,” which centered the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They were stories of change work meant to help us think or (re)think something and meant to make us question. The first was led by Prof. Dr. Maryna Kabanets, who shared about teaching during times of war and displacement in Ukraine, and the second featured 13 colleagues (and 13 different languages) and demonstrated the importance of considering linguistic diversity in online learning. It was one of my favorite session blocks out of the entire event. I am biased, of course, because the session design was my idea. But what took me aback was how willingly so many people from across the community were to contribute to the session. I had the occasion to invite several of them at the same time. We were video conferencing in preparation for another session and before we left I asked if they could stay on to talk about an idea I had for another session. Within 30 seconds of sharing the idea, they said yes without hesitation. The conversation could have ended there…we all had other work to do…but it instead lasted for another hour as we talked about how important it was to shed light on the topic, sharing stories from our own lived experiences. These are the colleagues I am talking about…people who could excitingly collaborate for hours around global change projects in online learning.

Next up at the Global Leadership Impact Summit was a workshop, the first of its kind that the OLC has offered, that guided participants through an approach to change work unique to the OLC (leveraging a custom framework designed by the OLC). As a session designer, no matter how many times I test something, I find myself surprised every time a session goes better than I expected. In less than an hour, groups of participants (composed largely of strangers) successfully managed to design a change project that was both locally and globally aligned to strategic priorities. Facilitated by a team of 6 online learning leaders (all alumni of the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning Global program), this session served as a much needed reminder that we’re not alone in this work. 

Day 1 ended with a panel discussion about approaches to leadership around the world that I am still talking about today. The panelists — Mr. Francisco Valdivia, Dr. Colette Chelf, Mr. Rassie Louw, Dr. Laura Murray — provided wonderful insights about what it means to lead in and across our field. It was a session full of so many quotable contributions and such important perspectives, that it has already informed important revisions to our suite of leadership development offerings and training programs.

Dr. Priya Mary Mathew, Director of the Center of Distance and Online Education at NMIMS, started Day 2 with an account of change work that offered a personal testimonial on the importance and impact of partnerships focused on common goals. Unexpectedly to me and the rest of the planning team, she shared the story of her time in IELOL Global and how it transformed both her thinking, her relationship to the field, her friendships, and her career. Priya…I didn’t ask you to provide such positive account of your time in IELOL Global, nor to even talk about the program at all…but you’ll never know how important it was to hear those words at that time and to know that the program had such a tremendous impact on you and your career journey. 

Dr. Trixie Smith, Dr. Godson Gatsha, Dr. Andrew Wiss, and Mary Showstark, took the virtual stage next with a discussion around the strategies for establishing and maintaining effective partnerships. Of all the useful recommendations they shared (of which there were many), all four settled on one core tenet: you have to actually commit to building a relationship with the people you are working with and lead with genuine care in any successful partnership.

The final session block was a back-to-back showcasing of global coalition building and change-making at scale. Session facilitators discussed how global coalition building has benefited them within their local contexts, what strategies have helped them connect with others globally, and how they have made impactful and sustainable changes at scale. We began with Mr. Bijay Dhungana, Dr. Frans Kriger, and Mr. Panique Mubikirizo, who shared about a multi-year collaboration and truly life-changing effort taking place in Kenya through their teacher training and refugee education programs in Kakuma. Eric Appau Asante then detailed Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s model of digital transformation and organizational change work, showing how partnerships have enabled KNUST to become a regional leader in online learning. He storied OLC’s first ever Regional Colloquy (that we hosted with KNUST and TIEC) as an example of their accomplishments. Finally, I led a session with Dr. Ebba Ossiannilsson to both increase awareness of ICDE’s Global Advocacy Campaign and invite the community to join the effort to support the future of open, flexible and distance learning through joining one of nine task forces around the world.

This event ended up being personally significant to me, and not just because I co-directed it. The Global Leadership Impact Summit was full of story after story after story about both the importance of partnerships and change work, and showed that real change is possible on a global scale. I needed that reminder. 

So with that, I extend heartfelt gratitude to Jennifer Mathes, Torunn Gjelsvik, Maryna Kabanets, Christopher Addo, Hélène Claeys, Zeren Eder, Arifa Garman, Paul N. Kahenya, Rassie Louw, Priya Mary Mathew, Ebba Ossiannilsson, Richard Powers, Diana Ruggiero, Dali Tan, Karl Uzcategui, Yan Xu, Francisco Valdivia, Colette Chelf, Laura Murray, Dylan Barth, Katie Fife Schuster, Tanya Joosten, Trixie Smith, Godson Gatsha, Andrew Wiss, Mary Showstark, Bijay Dhungana, Frans Kriger, Panique Mubikirizo, Eric Appau Asante, and Angela Gunder.

These are the colleagues I am talking about…the global community that rekindled my sense of purpose.

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