aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

View from the Outside In

Posted by Ellen on November 3, 2007

Jeff Cobb offered a great presentation at the recent eLearning Conference hosted by ASAE and The Center, and posts about trends in association elearning in his blog, Mission to Learn.

During my attendance at the conference — and I made nearly every chat and session –I was impressed by the range of what associations are doing educationally, online.  I was also amazed that there was so much talk and curiosity about the newest wave of online options — wikis, blogs, social networking, virtual worlds… especially Second Life, which I consider one of the leading-edge playspaces on the Web, populated primarily by geeks (I mean that in the most positive way, considering myself a “wannabe geek”) and entrepreneurs.

What surprises me about this is that from what I can tell, associations — by and large — are still struggling with the best ways to get buy-in from leadership to get into or expand online learning options, strategize those options, sort out the possibilities, figure out the budgeting, and then tackle the implementation of it all.

Because I came into the association world from the corporate Web world, I find this both inspirational and scary.  I’m inspired by the unfettered curiosity and eagerness to jump in and do it.  I’m scared for the associations that make that flying leap — without first understanding what makes online learning work — or not work — in the first place.

Maybe because I’m so new to associations that I’m convinced (correctly or not) that I can see things more clearly from the sidelines than the players can, but here are a few things I picked up on:

  • Association staffers in charge of elearning wanted solutions to problems with content, subject-matter experts, finances, technology, and other operational issues.  Questions kept coming up like, “How much would that cost?” and “How do I justify this to our leadership?”
  • Associations offering elearning expressed frustration at having lower attendance/registration than anticipated, invested money in systems that disappointed or didn’t work, more to do than resources or time to implement, among other issues.
  • No one seems absolutely clear about what all the online options are, how they are best used, and how to make the decisions that effectively map the needs to the solutions.  “Do I need an LMS or not?” “If we offer asynchronous learning, don’t we have to have a live component like a chat to go with it?”

ASAE and The Center did a great job pulling this together, and the presenters tackled their topics with enthusiasm.

But it was clear to me that there’s a disconnect between the vendors and clients, between what’s perceived as important and what truly is, and between an often-used solution and the right solution.

5 Responses to “View from the Outside In”

  1. Jeff Cobb said

    Ellen–Thanks for this great follow up to the ASAE/Center e-learning conference. I agree with your observations, though I’d like to attempt to add some nuance to your comment about “a disconnect between vendors and clients” (with the disclaimer that I fall in the vendor camp). I think this is true to a certain extent, but I also think that some of the other factors that you point out contribute to a culture that fosters this disconnect.

    The fact that associations “are still struggling with the best ways to get buy-in from leadership,” for instance, leads to sourcing and purchase situations where e-learning is not really considered a priority or an integral part of the association’s strategy. It is a project or a one-off initiative, and it gets treated as such by leadership. Vendors, more often than not, are just a seller on the other side of an RFP, rather than participants in a strategic conversation. There are bound to be disconnects when this is the level of communication that occurs.

    I think RFP processes themselves, which are so pervasive in the association world, also tend to drive the conversation quickly to features and budget and away from strategy and design. I’ve gotten any number of very long RFPs for an LMS, for instance, from organizations that arguably do not need an LMS as part of their strategy at all–or at the very least need something much simpler than what they envision.

    Vendors are a significant part of the problem (and can be part of the solution) in this mix partly because they will so rarely say no to any RFP, even a misguided one. Contributing to this problem is the fact that there are really relatively few vendors in the association space who, if they come primarily from the e-learning world, have take the time to understand associations, or conversely, if they come primarily from the association world, have taken the time to truly understand e-learning.

    I have criticized ASAE before for not doing enough to help associations understand and embrace e-learning, which I think has the potential to be an incredible strategic asset for it members. I think the recent conference, however, was a very strong effort by ASAE towards providing leadership. I agree that ASAE and the Center did a great job pulling it together, and I hope that it represents a solid step towards addressing the issues you have raised above, and as part of that, facilitating a more meaningful conversation between vendors and associations. –Jeff

    (P.S.—Thanks also for the mention of Mission to Learn!)

  2. Ellen said

    Jeff — Thanks for responding. Your points are well taken.

    Clearly there’s a terrific need for more programs like this one, especially from ASAE and The Center. What’s curious to me is that their own benchmarking data shows more and more associations will be offering elearning, yet it still holds a low spot on the ASAE totem pole. If they’re not careful, someone will step in to fill it!

  3. […] last week off-line, I’ve decided to spend a little more time with a statement I made in my “View from the Outside In” entry, posted as an observation of the recent eLearning Conference hosted by ASAE and The Center:  […]

  4. […] leads to a desire for yet more features. As I have commented before, and most recently on Ellen Behren’s blog, I think the average RFP process contributes to this […]

  5. […] out Ellen Behrens’ commentary on the ASAE conference on her aLearning […]

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