The people of the Acceleration Plan: Michelle Olmstead


Michelle Olmstead

Every week we introduce you to someone working in the Acceleration Plan. This week: Michelle Olmstead, Director of the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, and a member of the EdTech zone. Michelle grew up in the US and worked in the UK for five years. She’s been based in The Netherlands for the past two years. 

What kind of student were you?

Like all of us, I had different phases in my student journey. When I was in primary and secondary education, I always thought I was going to be a teacher. However, at 14, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. In the US, you need a doctorate to be a lawyer. This is when I realised I needed to study harder and became very studious.

I’ve always been a curious person, which helped a lot to motivate me to study. Once you start taking formal exams, time management becomes very important. Partly thanks to good teachers, I did well in managing my time to study and divide time and attention over the subjects and courses I was studying for.

Knowing I ultimately needed to do a doctorate in Law, I did my bachelor’s in history, political science, and business. In the US, your bachelor’s degree can be in any subject. I eventually did a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), while simultaneously, doing my doctorate in Law. The interdisciplinary basis of my bachelor and master provided me with, have been really good to help me understand how the law worked in a practical sense.

Why do you work in education?

After finishing my doctorate, I worked in employment law and merger and acquisition law, mostly for tech companies. At the time in the US, they had started teaching night classes for a lot of degrees. I started teaching those night classes from the moment I had my degrees and license. Two years into teaching, the university I worked for started offering components of education online.

I taught part-time for 7 years before I moved into academia full time. I made the move –albeit gradually- for several reasons. There was pressure from the university I worked at to go full time, at the same time I saw a lot of people burning out around me in the law industry, but mostly I really enjoyed the impact I made with students and learners. I was at the right place at the right time, the uptake in online and blended learning suited my style of teaching.

Seven years ago I moved to the UK. Although the language is the same, the culture is very different. Two years ago I moved to the Netherlands. I have been able to see three countries and their take on online and blended learning. It is interesting to see the differences. In the US they adopted an online and blended learning style early on with the technology being implemented well, but the pedagogical best practices took a bit longer to integrate. I feel the UK and The Netherlands are the opposite. Here they are very conscious of the pedagogical way and use technology as a bridge to get to online and blended learning. I believe it’s best to be in the middle of these ends of the spectrum. You need both.

Currently, I’m not teaching, but have taught for 20 years. I miss it though; I should consider going back to teach at least one class!

How did you end up with the Acceleration Plan?

Leiden University had committed to joining the EdTech zone as they were already doing a lot of work with start-ups. This was just before I came on board, so when I joined they said: “You’d be perfect for that!” As our colleague from the TU Delft was leading the team, and there was already a lot of collaboration between us, I figured it’d be good.

The EdTech zone focuses on start-ups. The start-up environment in The Netherlands has a few steps to take. The zone works on two streams and the stream I pull is the bureaucratic one! We’re trying to create a framework for start-ups, companies, and institutions to work together on EdTech. This is where particularly start-ups struggle, the bureaucracy. I have the strong opinion that we should be able to shape start-ups that are working on EdTech solutions, and I believe it’s the responsibility of the institutions to have conversations with start-ups about their products and how to get them into our education. Having these conversations will help us scale up solutions, it will help provide university-wide products. Institutions and private companies have to find the common goals to work together, to do that, it requires dialogue.

The impact of the zone will be two-fold I believe. On the one hand, we will provide that framework for tech companies and start-ups to work within education in The Netherlands. On the other hand, I believe we will be creating more and more dialogue on using technology in education.

And the dialogue is needed. We have learned that we can do a lot in a crisis, and most of it has gone faster than we ever thought possible. I think now is the time we start reflecting on this acceleration process. There is room for improvement and we have a lot of learning opportunities: What should we do? What shouldn’t we do? We need to look at the overall improvement of the environment. The Acceleration Plan is a great opportunity because The Netherlands is small enough to work together collaboratively at the moment.


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