Mary Welby von Thelen '76: eLearning Entrepreneur

“Our people can’t learn that way.”
“They need the social interaction.”
“They don’t have the opportunity to ask questions.”
“It’s too expensive.”

In her career as an eLearning content creator, CEO of OnCall Learning Systems Mary Welby von Thelen ’76 has heard myriad excuses about why eLearning could never work for a particular community. And she doesn’t believe any of them.

A computer programmer turned registered nurse turned eLearning entrepreneur, von Thelen has been at the forefront of electronic learning since 1995 when, as a nurse working the night shifts at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut, she was asked to join a team of clinicians to implement the hospital’s newly purchased MEDITECH healthcare information system. She was later offered a position as a clinical information systems analyst, acting as a link between the hospital’s nursing staff and the IT department. The position was a forerunner to the field of Nursing Informatics, today a specialized career path for nurses.

“I would never characterize myself as an ‘entrepreneur’ per se,” said von Thelen. “Entrepreneurship seems so bold and risky. I simply saw a need that had to be filled.”

The need was an ability to provide consistent training to doctors and nurses in how to use the MEDITECH clinical information system. Von Thelen had observed a snowball effect of poor training from the initial in-house experts that resulted in variable, and even disastrous, levels of end user effectiveness.

Frustrated by the lack of consistency, von Thelen began to consider how eLearning could improve the process.

“I somehow got the idea of creating eLearning to teach the software - interactive training that would make the users feel like they were working on the live system,” said von Thelen. “That solved a number of problems at once. The computer delivered the same content every time, no matter what. It never took a holiday or had a bad day. Finally, it delivered the same amount of material in half the time.”

Emboldened by the idea that electronic learning could take some of the more mundane training off the hands of educators, who would then be free to spend more time on the practices that lend themselves to hands-on learning (CPR training, venipuncture, and other techniques in the nursing field), von Thelen started what would later be called OnCall Learning Systems in 1998. It became widely regarded as the leader in MEDITECH eLearning solutions within a few years.

“I would say that the great key to my success in this business is the fact that I have all of the talents needed to run it in one person,” said von Thelen. “I am a nurse, so I understand healthcare. I am a programmer, so I know how to create the training. I took Mrs. Norfleet’s English and Miss Malone’s U.S. History at St. Anne’s so I know how to write. If I needed to hire a different individual to perform each of the functions required to make our training, I could not have afforded to get our business off the ground.”

Much like von Thelen sees a blend of her own knowledge, skills, and abilities coming together to create effective content, she sees blended learning, or the use of many mediums and processes, as the most effective method of teaching students overall.

“Not everyone or everything benefits from eLearning delivery,” she noted. “So you have to consider if the subject matter is appropriate for the modality. There will always be a percentage of the population that does not learn well in a particular way, because of learning disabilities, language barriers, or physical handicaps. There can never be just one way to learn something, and great teachers have always known that.”

For OnCall Learning Systems, dreams for the future include a Do-It-Yourself portal that would empower educators to make high quality clinical training on their own, and expansion into international markets, an area led by the company’s Chief Operating Officer and von Thelen’s husband, Tony B-72.

“He and I met in sixth grade at Belfield and he used to pull my hair,” remembers von Thelen. “So you could say that’s another way in which St. Anne’s-Belfield influenced my life!”

Mary Welby von Thelen earned a B.S. from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce specializing in Finance in 1981. She earned a B.S. in Nursing from Fairfield University in 1994. She then went on to earn a Master’s degree in Management of Information Technology (M.S.M.I.T.) from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2001. To learn more about OnCall Learning Systems, visit


This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of Perspectives magazine. Image courtesy of Tony von Thelen.