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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Archive for February, 2010

Tightening the Connections

Posted by Ellen on February 10, 2010

What’s the Number One reason your members join and renew? Is it because of the connections they make to others? The certification you provide that they need for their profession? The vast libraries of information and expertise within your association?

In some ways, the first two are tied to the last: members want to connect to others because of the expertise their peers can provide. They pursue a certification because of the knowledge they’ll gain from it.

Thanks to our adaption of social networking platforms, or our leveraging of those on the Web, we’re doing a better job of helping our members connect to each other.

But what about connecting our members to us? To those vast libraries of information within our association?

How quickly can they find that article they remember reading in your magazine last year sometime about Topic A?

How easily can they find a copy of the case study they heard about at the annual conference awhile three or four years ago?

On the surface, this sounds like a Knowledge Management issue. Or an Information Architecture challenge.

But it’s learning, too.

The Wall Street Journal gets it. According to an article in the November T+D magazine, Dow Jones Company “realized … that the content was more than just a newspaper or a media outlet but a teaching tool….”

They created the Wall Street Journal Business SmartKit, “an online offering that captures an entire library of Wall Street Journal articles plus special secgtions from best in class industry experts who are devoted to dynamic topics and interviews with business leaders.”

Whoa! Talk about a library of expertise at your fingertips!

The article goes on to describe that the content is organized by subject and “packaged in multiple formats including searchable newspaper articles, white papers, case studies, videos, and podcasts,” so searchers can find what they need.

The premise is that people need to know something right now, find it quickly, and apply it immediately. The SmartKit is “a knowledge resource” rather than a course or curriculum.

Are you providing easy access to your association’s knowledge resources? Or are you spending hours on end, trying to meet a members’ request for a particular article, handout, or copy of a Powerpoint presentation?

Wouldn’t your time be better served by creating an online library of those resources that your members can access independently any time, any where?

Of course it would!

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, Social Learning | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

LMS Business Model for Associations?

Posted by Ellen on February 8, 2010

Let’s face it. There’s a wide expanse between the  free, open source LMS systems (Moodle, for example) and expensive, proprietary systems currently available. Despite the appeal of downloading a free application or program, open source systems require someone with programming savvy to make them work — a resource most small associations don’t have.

Wouldn’t it be great to find a system that fits our needs — and our budget? Something that’s affordable, based on a realistic view of the number of learners we’re likely to serve, rather than some number we have to come up with — then meet — to justify the investment, then balance the budget?
“I too have been frustrated by the lack of offerings for people who don’t have huge budgets available,” says Chad Gent of LearnGauge.

To their credit, Chad and his colleagues are seeking that rather elusive balance between staying in business and serving their customers, including associations and non-profits.

In addition to providing consulting services, LearnGauge offers to learning system options:

“We have our own Continuous Learning System (CLS), which is a Learning Management type system that operates differently from a traditional LMS,” according to Chad. “The Continuous Learning System has a program-based focus instead of the more common LMS approach that simply makes a bunch of existing content available.”

If the CLS is anything like the demo of a beta he showed me awhile back, this could be the system you’re looking for if you want to combine access to online learning that’s bundled with social learning options. Very cool and exactly what most associations are looking for — a way to build connections and dialogue around online learning events.

LearnGauge also offers a “barebones” LMS for limited budgets. I won’t pass on the pricing he mentioned, as your situation could be different, but I will say that it can be far, far below the prices mentioned in the Tagoras report and elsewhere (see “LMS = Losing My Smile” for more).

But here’s the best thing about LearnGauge, and why they’re deserving of a post when I normally shy away from “promoting” specific vendors:

They’re willing to work with you if you’d like to form a consortium, pooling your funding and resources, in order to save cost.

If the system is like the one I saw, each association’s learning offerings would appear to be launched from its own system, with your own branding and unique course offerings.

Too cool.

Oh, and have I mentioned that the model isn’t so new that it hasn’t been tried and worked successfully? If you’ve heard of the Sakai Foundation, you already know of such a consortium model (BTW, Sakai also offers an open source LMS).

So if it’s looking more and more as though your competition for members-as-learners is closing in (or, worse, leaving you in the dust), consider giving them a call. Setting a meeting. Finding out if they’d be willing to partner with you.

The system is there. All you have to do is show up.

For more information about what your options might be, please contact Chad Gent at LearnGauge directly at

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Trends, eLearning Resources, Financing eLearning | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

LMS = Losing My Smile

Posted by Ellen on February 5, 2010

[Association LMS Vendors, Take Note!]

Every time I see a report that shows what an organization can expect to spend on an LMS (learning management system), I lose my smile. Worse, I want to hang my head and weep.

In her “Building the Business Case for e-Learning,” published by the eLearning Guild, Temple Smolen writes, “Most off-the-shelf LMS products require some customization. The costs can vary widely for a LMS with customization, but under $100,000 is a reasonable starting assumption for most organizations with less than 2,000 employees.”

Ikes! Those prices!

But wait — there’s more!!

Notice the word “employees”?

It’s fair to say that most LMS providers are still oriented to delivering learning modules via an LMS to employees — individuals within the same corporation. The corporate business rules often allow LMS costs to be leveraged across various departments in ways that associations cannot model.

For now, let’s ask the companies providing instructor-led options to stand aside (companies such as Blackboard, CommPartners, etc.) and focus on LMS systems that facilitate asynchronous, online access to uploaded courses and tutorials.

As colleagues of mine know, I’ve been advocating for an association-specific alternative for a long time. We need something that reaches past our staff offices so our statewide, national, and international members can easily and affordably access.

Doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to work.

Did I mention the need for affordability, too?

It’s funny how what seems like a few dollars to many LMS providers adds up a lot faster on our side of the table.

Let’s take the data Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele at Tagoras uncovered in their Association Learning Management Systems report (October 2009), which showed that for small associations, the average start-up cost for an LMS was:

 $50/user/year (at the low end)

Sounds reasonable.

Until you do the math:

$50 x 1000 members (we assume 1/2 our members might access?) = $50,000/year!!

Double Ikes!!

And don’t tell me to add that $50 onto the registration fee.

Because that $50 will be on top of marketing costs… and any revision costs we’ve set aside in case there’s a boo-boo we need to fix or an update we need to add… or any other items we need to include in our overhead (pay extra for e-mail service? how about registration processing fees through an outsource agency?)…

It’s not like we can charge that much money for an online course in the first place (though some organizations do — you know who you are; that’s why I haven’t signed up for your online courses).

Ready? Let’s walk through a one-year budget for one online course (after development).

Cost of doing online business (marketing, updates, etc.) = $1200/year
Hosting fee/LMS fee = $50,000

Total = $51,200

Now let’s say I think my members would pay — AT MOST — $200 for a course. That means I need 256 learners EACH YEAR just to BREAK EVEN.

But that’s not all!!

According to the Tagoras report, the average cost per learner goes down only slightly over a three-year average, so you can’t expect much savings over time.

This is too bad, as associations are generally known as loyal clients and willing references to other associations seeking services and products.

Something that will bring my smile back is a business model for LMSs that suits small associations and non-profits, not just large organizations.

One company is listening — and is willing to work with associations to forge a partnership that will help alleviate costs while providing quality LMS service.

More about this company and its program for associations and non-profits in the next entry.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, eLearning Resources, Financing eLearning | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 22 Comments »


Posted by Ellen on February 1, 2010

In the eLearning Guild’s 2009 white paper, “Building the Business Case for e-Learning” Temple Smolen writes, “In an April 2009 survey of eLearning Guild members, 48% reported a positive return on investment (ROI) from e-Learning, while only 5% reported no return or a negative ROI. In fact, not only do most members generate a positive return, but 50% report a ROI greater than 15%.”

For advocates of alearning, this is a great sliver of data.

But is ROI always the best thing to be measuring? How about measuring how successfully we delivered what our members expected? Or how about determining if the investment we’ve made in elearning really paid off more than offering the same content in a face-to-face format?

As with all things, you need to know what your original success criteria were before you determine if you met them. (Sounds obvious, but come on, haven’t we all measured success without a baseline one time or another?!?)

If you want to demonstrate to your board of directors that the investment you made in alearning will break even or generate revenue, then an ROI is a great measure. The formula for ROI is Net Benefit/Cost. The Net Benefit could be cost savings or revenues. You also want to consider whether your costs should be recovered within the year or over a longer period (for example, the cost of hiring a Webinar production company should be recoverable within the year whereas an LMS investment should be calculated over several years).

Measuring expectations is a little different and unless there’s a formula for ROE (return on expecations) I don’t know about, you’ll need to be more creative. Let’s say you introduced elearning and expected it would engage otherwise non-active members. Start with the number of members who did not participate in an online offering and, over time, measure the change. Let’s say 40% of your 2000 members (800) were non-participants in learning offerings prior to online learning. After the first measurement period (A month? Six? Twelve? It’s really up to you), 40 of those members took an online course (5%). You could say that you’ve experienced a 5% return on your expectation.

According to Smolen (who cites Wikipedia), “For people in finance, EVA (Economic Value Added) is considered a more accurate measure of profitability” because it “is a measure which assumes there is an opportunity cost to the money you are investing, and it might yield better returns elsewhere. The calculation allows for an adjustment to compare one project to a hypothetical alternative investment.”

In other words, if you want to, you could use EVA to calculate the variance between what your elearning investment has delivered versus a face-to-face (FTF) version of the same course. You need another piece of the financial picture for this formula than you do for calculating ROI:
(Net Benefit – Cost of Capital) / Cost Investment = EVA

Her white paper provides all the details for making this calculation (or see Wikipedia for an explanation there).

Here’s an alternative: Let’s say a FTF program is suitable to adaption online. In the FTF format, because of overhead, the program costs $30,000, reaches 30 learners, and generates $2000/year in revenue. It costs $1000/attendee (in association costs; costs to attendees for travel, lodging, etc. are separate and not included because of the wide variance in calculating them). Your waiting list for the program is long, with many people dropping because the program is only held once each year.

After calculating the cost of development, you determine that an alearning version of the program would cost $60,000 but because it’s online, you can allow any number of members to access it at any time. You decide that your members would be willing to pay $200 for a year’s access. If you have 150 people register over two years, you’ll earn back your investment.

If your alearning offering will still be viable after three years, and/or if you know at least 75 people per year will register the third year (assuming 50% attrition because the offering doesn’t have the shine of a new penny anymore), you stand to gain $15,000 in revenue. Okay, subtract some ongoing costs for your LMS, marketing, and other stuff, and your revenue shrinks, but it will still generate more than the $6000 over three years that the FTF session delivers.

Finally, over three years, your cost per learner is just $160, rather than $1000.

In the long term, your alearning offering will reach more people and do so at a much lower per-member cost, even though your up-front investment will be twice as high.

ROI isn’t the only financial measure that you should calculate and consider — EVA might be more appropriate. And when it comes to our members — ROE should always be considered!

Posted in aLearning Strategies, eLearning Resources, Justifying aLearning, Measuring Results | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »