aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Square One in the Real World

Posted by Ellen on March 8, 2008

Education colleagues at a state association invited me to lunch recently to pick my brain. I was eager to hear their challenge and hoped I could help in some way.

Turns out they are living and breathing Square One. Their association leadership has decided that online learning is a good path to take, and charged the staff with making it happen.

On the surface, their membership seems to be a perfect fit for online learning:

  • Dispersed throughout Michigan, they’re not only geographically split but buried under snow several months of the year, so online programs would give members a way of continuous professional development despite their inability to travel.
  • Their large membership base fits a slim profile, so little (if any) stratification by function is needed for each program developed — maximizing the efficiencies of any single online course.
  • Because their leadership is asking for online learning, support for the initiative already exists.

Our sandwiches arrived and they shifted their notepads to make room for their plates. They told me they were researching Web conferencing options and were interested in my impressions of the companies on their list.

Web conferencing seemed like a good fit at first. Then they told me something that shifted everything for me:

Not all of their members access the Web, and many of those who do still connect via dial-up.

This poses a particular challenge for many associations moving into online learning. Connection speeds are slower, and loading times for some things longer — including any audio or video, which needs more time to travel the phone lines than high-speed connections.

Suddenly I had more questions for them than they had for me:

  • Had they surveyed their membership about their Internet familiarity and activity? Did they know for sure that if they offered something that their members would respond to it? That even if they wanted to access it, they would be able to? Did they know how to ask the questions to get useful information? (Watch for a separate entry on this topic – Why You Shouldn’t Ask If Your Members Want Online Learning.)
  • Did they know what percentage of their membership was actually using dial-up? Most? Some? A few?
  • Had they tested any of the Web conferencing options to find out how they are received over a phone line?
  • Have they thought about any other options, or just Web conferencing?

More than an hour flew by. Heading back to my office, I was worried I’d talked too much, dumped too much information on them, maybe even frustrated them.

I hope that instead they left with possibilities, with a range of options they didn’t know were open to them, and ideas about some steps they could take toward their goal.

In a few weeks, we’ll meet up again. I’m eager to see them, to find out where their efforts have taken them, to learn from their decision-making process.

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