When Life Serves As Inspiration; the Story of OLC’s New Approach to Conference Engagement (a series)


Madeline R. Shellgren (she/her/hers), Director of Community Strategy and Engagement, Online Learning Consortium

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Design inspiration can come from a lot of places. For me, I get inspired by the things around me and life in general. As I sat with the design challenge of reimagining conference engagement, an important consideration was how space, scheduling, and programming would interact. This might seem self-explanatory, but for those who might not be deeply engaged in conference or event planning, finding an effective combination does require quite a lot of strategy. A major goal for us is creating and facilitating meaningful spaces for our community to come together and learn. So how do we do this knowing that there will be a lot happening throughout the conference, knowing that we have many different stakeholders to design for (and that each have different and various goals), knowing that we will never have enough time or capacity to do all the things we want to, while also working along the way to ensure our conference is designed in such a way that all our community members get the most out of their experience? This is where the strategy and teamwork come in. While an entire blog series could be dedicated to exploring this point in particular, in this post I will story two new developments that serve as key components to OLC’s new conference engagement strategy: the Engagement Boulevard and the Engagement Block Party.

Following the first major year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities and towns were looking for ways to sustain business and a sense of community while also practice safe social distancing. One solution that many took up was the creation and implementation of open community spaces (i.e. those public spaces that were dedicated for pedestrian-only use, some with music, some with food, some with art, some with planned activities, etc). In fact, locally this was the case. I live near East Lansing, MI currently and the city decided to create dedicated public space during the summer for community to come together and engage (including space for businesses and restaurants). They called it “Albert Al Fresco.” The result was much needed community connection and an opportunity for community to interact and engage with each other. It meant that many local businesses and artists survived the pandemic. And perhaps most importantly (in my mind) it marked an important shift in city priorities: community became front and center to design.

Now I started by saying that as a designer I am inspired by the world around me and I meant this. Observing the new approach of cities around me and reflecting back on successful city revitalization projects I’ve read about in the past, I reimagined our conference engagement spaces and programming using dedicated pedestrian thru-ways as direct inspiration. Thus was born the Engagement Boulevard concept. At this year’s OLC Accelerate conference, attendees will be welcomed into the exhibit hall by an intentional “boulevard” of space (right down the middle of the exhibit hall) dedicated to networking, play, hands on design, relaxation, maker activities, and more. It will serve as a connective hub for our conference community to gather so that they can more effectively learn and grow with and from one another. It will also serve as a key strategy to tie their conference experiences together. With the amazing work of the OLC Accelerate 2022 Engagement Team (a truly awesome group of volunteers from across the field of online, blended, and digital learning), the programming that will take place throughout the conference in the Engagement Boulevard will be genuinely inspiring as a model for how we might do and approach conferences differently (to genuinely answer the call to reimagine what’s possible for a conference experience and model the very practices, principles, and theories we present on each year).  

Taking this last point to heart though, we also knew that the Boulevard concept alone would not suffice to meet our goal of redesigning a conference experience that is guided by the very scholarship we present on/around. Though the OLC will always be iterating and innovating as a means to achieve this goal and a quality experience, this year we will also launch the Engagement Block Party. Serving as the second key component to our new conference engagement strategy, the Engagement Block Party will be a dedicated block in our conference programming fully set aside for engagement-related programming. In the first post of this series, I wrote that “engagement is programming and programming should be engaging.” Rarely, however, is engagement programming centered in the way that it will be at OLC Accelerate 2022. For an entire 75 minute block, conference attendees will explore new ways to engage through a series of activities, models, and experiences during the Engagement Block Party. Importantly, this will be the only conference programming happening at that time, ensuring that we are able to communicate that intentional focus on engagement is a priority to the OLC.

I was inspired, once again, by life around me. I spent many of my formative years in a town that hosted a festival every year. For one week every summer, the town essentially shut down as well all collectively planned for and helped manage the festival. We welcomed thousands of visitors from around the country. The local clubs and sports teams all had booths, local artists sold their products. We even had a popular dance party where all the locals were bound to be found on Thursday night. But what always stood as inspiration for me was the way in which this festival mattered to the town. It was a core part of the town’s identity and as a result, everyone came together to ensure it was a success and that all visitors and community members had a great experience. A conference, itself, could serve as a metaphor for this festival, but my design brain went to smaller scale gatherings that nevertheless stood as key moments for community to come together (and which neighbors typically set everything aside to engage in and support: neighborhood block parties).

So what will OLC’s block party be about and why should you care? I’ve referenced this in another blogpost I wrote for the OLC, but I’ll share it here as well: engagement remains a key priority area for students (that many faculty still feel under-prepared to address). “In an Every Learner Everywhere and Tyton Partners survey of 852 introductory faculty from over 600 institutions, ‘increasing student engagement in class’ was ranked as the highest instructional priority for both the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters (Fox et al. 2021, check out the full report here). Interestingly, the survey report also identifies ‘Keeping my students engaged’ as the top challenge for introductory faculty, again for both the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters (Fox et al. 2021)” (Shellgren, 2021). You can read that blogpost for more background on other ways we at the OLC are centering and support development around engagement. That said, the Engagement Block Party is one other direct action we are taking to ensure that we are dedicating space, time, and resources to help the OLC community grow in their capacity to design truly impact and quality engagement. 

In the next segment of this series, we will hear directly from the OLC Accelerate Engagement Team around the specific programming they are developing for both the Engagement Boulevard and the Engagement Block Party. For now, whether you are an educator, a leader, a conference manager, or simply someone who came across this post and decided to read it, I encourage you to also explore life around you as you design and plan for engagement. There is so much to be inspired by. And as always, I hope you consider joining us at OLC Accelerate this year.


Fox, K., Bryant, G., Lin, N., Khedkar, N., Nguyen, A., (2021, January 28). Time for Class – COVID-19 Edition Part 3: The Impact of 2020 on Postsecondary Teaching and Learning of Introductory Faculty. Tyton Partners.

Shellgren, M. (2021). OLC Partnership with PlayPosit Seeks to Collaboratively Explore the Future of Online Engagement. [Blogpost]. OLC Insights. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/olc-partnership-with-playposit-seeks-to-collaboratively-explore-the-future-of-online-engagement/.

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