#WeAreOLC: BOLC (Before OLC) and AOLC (After OLC)


Clark Shah-Nelson, University of Maryland-Baltimore – Virtual Engagement and OLC Live! Co-Chair

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With the idea of stories being a connecting element throughout all of our conference activities, we are creating a variety of opportunities for you to share your story and to hear the stories of others. We’re calling this initiative #WeAreOLC. As the #WeAreOLC initiative unfolds, you will see a series of blog posts focused on how we (the members of the steering committee) are using storytelling to create a memorable and impactful 25th Anniversary experience. See all #WeAreOLC blog posts.

Twenty-five years. What a number! I’m particularly drawn to this number, since it’s also half of my life. Looking back over twenty-five years in educational technology, distance learning and online learning, I have benefitted from many privileges, hard (and often fun) work, chance encounters and fortunate opportunism. Reflecting on this in light of the 25th anniversary of the OLC brings up professional and personal memories and heartwarming enthusiasm. 

(Photo: Denver Post, 1/31/94)


Before OLC. Now, I don’t mean before it existed. I mean, before I became aware of OLC and it became a part of my professional life. You see, back in 1994, right when OLC was “born”, my career took a turn from the traditional high school classroom to distance learning. That was the year I began teaching high school German via one-way video and two-way audio (YouTube video).  With only a B.A. in German and a teaching certificate, I had a lot to learn, and basically had to teach myself! I really could have used a network and community like OLC back then. I was just thankful that ole world wide web had been born so that I could fire up Mosaic and surf over to Altavista to check out some early websites. I got by and had a lot of fun helping form a new distance learning network for the Denver Public Schools.

In 1999, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to start designing and teaching online. Now again, I didn’t have the support network and community just yet, and “instructional designer” (ID) was still a pretty new position/concept at the time. Luckily, I had completed an M.A. in Instructional Technology at the University of Colorado at Denver in 1997, so I had the tools to become an ID, but again, I was working on my own, designing and teaching my own online German classes. But as you are well aware, one of the major advantages of being an online instructor is that you can teach and connect with students wherever you happen to be. So needless to say, I moved to New York City and continued teaching online to pay the rent while I made music, toured with my band and went on acting auditions and shoots. Eventually this meant I was also teaching while on the set in Los Angeles, New York, Madrid and Toronto, and while traveling around Southeast Asia, hopping from one internet cafe to the next. 

But again, I was missing a larger community and personal learning network – and had loads to learn. In 2006, I started shifting toward administration, (my dad was a nursing home administrator and my mom a teacher, go figure…) as I moved to the Catskills mountains to manage online education at State University of New York (SUNY) at Delhi, and I gave up teaching online shortly thereafter, around the time our first son was born. This was, coincidentally, the same time my personal learning network really started to take off: being a member of the larger SUNY community, and hearing about this “ALN conference” in Orlando from folks like Alexandra Pickett and Greg Ketcham. A whole conference just focused on asynchronous/online learning! 


Now we have reached the After OLC (AOLC) era. I attended my first “Sloan-C” conference at the Caribe Royale hotel in Orlando in 2007. I vividly remember being jazzed at the end of the conference, talking with Phylise Banner after testing the water slide (a dozen times), and saying something along the lines of “Hey, what if we could (insert some various ideas for community-building/cyber-connecting/conference engagement whatnot)?” – and her saying: Yes! It is these types of conversations, ideas, energy and connections that have made me keep coming back and continue to engage and ideate in the 12 years since. And in that time, I’ve seen so many new ideas, innovations, and new levels of engagement take root, that it is clear the OLC is poised to remain a central community-building focal point for online education in the decades to come. From new tracks, session types, the Technology Test Kitchen, Field Guide program, focus on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility, Slack team, engagement maps, OLC Live, to the Sanctuary quiet reflection and wellness space, this community keeps evolving. I’ve been fortunate to be here for, and contribute energy to, all of this. Imagine all the things that are possible in the next 12 or even 25 years! 

Over the last 25 years we have seen the invention of “instructional designer” as a position/field and area of study, to single instructional designer shops, to teams of two or three, to specialized large-scale teams that require entirely new levels, management structures and leadership roles. Positions like Chief Innovation Officer didn’t exist a dozen years ago for the most part, and now we are at the precipice of another decade of change and growth. It won’t be long before all the folks who don’t believe online education is “as good as” traditional classroom education will be replaced by new generations who have learned and completed degrees online and felt engaged and connected with people both in person and with technological tools. With 2020 on the horizon, and as I work to complete a doctorate in Business Administration (hibernating, see you in 2021!), I see the workforce becoming more and more virtual, with practitioners (and scholars) increasingly working on dispersed virtual teams on a global scale. It is just as vital as ever that we come together as a community, energize each other with knowledge and idea sharing, and continue our growth, together. #WeareOLC

Clark Shah-Nelson, University of Maryland-Baltimore – Virtual Engagement and OLC Live! Co-Chair

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