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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Archive for March, 2010

Life Support Can Be Expensive

Posted by Ellen on March 27, 2010

Didn’t think your conference sessions need life support? In Jeff Hurt’s Midcourse Corrections post, “The Conference Session is Dead,”  he writes, “The conference session is a triumph of standardization and it is so ingrained in our thinking we still buy and sell seat time rather than performance improvement.”

He is so right.

In his discussion — and the great comments posted by others — lots of reasons for the stagnancy are mentioned and deconstructed.

One I didn’t see mentioned is $$.

Fact: Many associations rely on conferences/conventions to generate a significant part of their annual non-dues revenue.

Fact: Conferences/conventions are a twisted mutation of business meetings and educational events, both of which have sprouted arms and legs from their foreheads.

Fact: Every conference relies on the generosity of their sponsors and their booth space sales to generate their revenue goals.

Fact: Sponsors make those donations and vendors make booth space commitments based on attendance predictions — the higher the number of attendees, the more likely the money will pour in. [For more on sponsorship connections to conferences, Brian Birch has some ideas at Acronym .]

Fact: The more attendees an event attracts, the more difficult it is to design and lead effective educational events.

Fact: Associations are less willing than they should be to part with the $$ necessary to make those educational sessions true learning events.


A few years back, the education committee decided to offer a pre-conference event for our foodservice members that focused on Web 2.0 options. Because our members were all at colleges and universities, some were already starting to use podcasts and Twitter to promote daily specials, and other members were curious about how they were doing it. Great fit, right?

I’ll cut to the chase:

Few sponsors saw a link that was direct enough for them to donate funding. Even though we explained that the same decision-makers would be in the room, they opted out. They didn’t say so, but my guess is that they didn’t see any potential podium time.

So we didn’t have much funding to operate with.

I envisioned at least four break-out sessions, each highly interactive: podcasts in one, blog and Twitter in another, using social networking like Facebook in yet another. We’d have laptops set up so all attendees could play along as the session leader talked them through examples and gave them opportunities to try everything on their own.

Peers would lead the sessions so members would learn from each other. The environment would be set for a free exchange of who’s doing what, why, how. The underlying assumption would be, “If I can do it, you can do it” which breaks down any resistance to learning some feel with technical topics when “experts” lead sessions.

Well, most of our session leaders were peers, but things generally didn’t work out the way we’d planned for several reasons:

  • Internet connections in the hotel meeting rooms were exhorbitantly expensive
  • Laptop rentals were difficult to find locally 


We combined the most Internet-interactive sessions into one room to save wifi costs. We used small-group discussion and other methods of collaboration in other breakouts to engage the learners. Powerpoint presentations were verbotin.


Less than optimal, based on what I was envisioning. But the feedback on the session was the best I’d seen for any we’d ever done. The attendees, after all, didn’t see the planning, just the outcome, so they didn’t know what they were missing.

Attendees appreciated the highly interactive sessions and — naturally — took a lot away from them that they put to immediate use.


We lost money on that session. When I looked the executive director in the eye and said, “But it was one of the best learning experiences in a pre-conference they’ve ever had,” he agreed that it was worth it.

Unfortunately, no organization can do that too often.

So yes, we want to offer more interactive sessions.

Yes, we want to engage our learners.

No, conferences are not the ideal place for that.

But the fact remains that money drives everything, and until there’s another financial model, these are the facts we’ll have to live with.

In the meantime, we’ll have to keep finding ways to trick the system.

That’s our life support for the time being.

Posted in Conferences, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , | 17 Comments »

Something e-Old, Something e-New

Posted by Ellen on March 20, 2010

Sounds sort of stinky, doesn’t it?

Well, according to the results of a broad-reaching survey done by Allison Rossett, professor emerita of educational technology at San Diego State University, and James Marshall, consultant and educational technology faculty member at SDSU, current elearning is a combination of old and new — but mostly old.

The research is “broad-reaching” because five groups invited members to participate in the survey — groups that include a range of learning (and elearning) professionals:

  • ASTD
  • The eLearning Guild
  • The International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI)
  • PINOT (Performance Improvement Non-Training Solutions)

Rossett and Marshall focused on determining what we’re all *actually doing* when we say we’re doing elearning. Are we doing…

Online collaboration?

Mobile delivery?

Asynchronous programs with visuals and audio?

Training in virtual worlds?

Blogs and wikis? Twitter? YouTube?

Thanks to the authors’ willingness to share just their results even more broadly, you can catch a full article about it in the January 2010 issue of T+D from ASTD, listen to a podcast of the article , and/or you can view a recording of a Webinar she did to discuss the results. [Note that Elluminate requires a Java download that will launch automatically when you complete the registration form.]

I opted for the Webinar recording, “eLearning is Not What You Think It Is,” and highly recommend you choose at least one of the ways to see this report. The results will give you an idea of where your association’s elearning sits right now compared to where it is in other organizations.

Here’s a teaser:

Their carefully crafted “snapshots” uncovered these five most frequently occurring elearning practices:

1. Online testing.

2. Use of computers as part of classroom instruction.

3. “Our programs present content and opportunities to practice and receive feedback. Employees work on these tutorials at a time of their own choosing.” (I’d call this asynchronous, stand-alone learning with embedded learning checkpoints and feedback.)

4. “Our programs use visuals with an audio track. Employees watch and listen at a time of their choosing.” (I’d call this asynchronous learning, including archived Webinars, without embedded learning checkpoints.)

5. “Our programs are based on realistic scenarios that press employees to make choices and learn from the results of those choices.” (I’d call this using branching scenarios.)

With all the buzz lately about incorporating social learning into the mix, are you as surprised as I am to see it missing from the top 5?

And the “least frequently occurring elearning practice”? Mobile learning, with training in virtual worlds in next-to-last place.

“Personalized learning” topped the wish list and lack of funding was the primary elearning constraint.

As Rossett notes, “Old favorites dominated our study. eLearning today appears to be mostly about delivering assessments and designs, testing, personalization, scenarios, and tutorials. All these are familiar, and they all have deep roots in the training and development community.”

She also points out that “Those who reported themselves to be leaders reported more of everything than did practitioners.”

Those of us who are “doing” know the constraints we face everyday, despite our wish list, despite nodding our heads in agreement with the bloggers and consultants who tell us we need to be doing more A, B, or C.

Yes, we should be doing some things differently. But the reality is that we are on huge ships that are hard enough to turn when you’re at the helm. And when you’re not the captain, it’s that much more difficult to change direction.

What can help make the difference? A well-formulated elearning strategy of course 🙂

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, aLearning Trends, Justifying aLearning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Remember the Smell of that Cooking?

Posted by Ellen on March 18, 2010

We all know how hard it is to get presenters to abandon the safe familiarity of the podium and Powerpoint slides and become true facilitators of learning, so I was tickled to see so many interactive sessions included in the ASAE Great Ideas Conference.

These three in particular caught my eye:

  • “Speed Learning for Professional Development Specialists,” facilitated by Tony Ellis of NACS and Bill Scott of The Obesity Society.
  • “Cookin Up Leadership[tm],” facilitated by Rhea Blanken of Results Technology
  • “Leadership through Golf: Learning from Life’s Divots,” led by Ron McNally and Reggie Henry of ASAE and The Center, and Tom Pierce of Pierce Management Development

I can tell these were interactive from the titles, the photos posted online (okay, that’s pretty much a dead giveaway), and from the handouts.

When the handouts consist of worksheets, supplemental readings, checklists and other job aids instead of Powerpoint printouts, then I know something interesting must have been going on in that session. Of course it also means that I won’t learn much without the context around them, but that’s okay. Face-to-face events should benefit those who are there, not those of us mining the handouts after the fact (remote learning and face-to-face learning should be conducted differently, you know).

Hurray for these content leaders who dared to be different — who found ways to make their key points interesting and — hopefully — memorable!

Because it’s all about being able to remember what we learned when we need it, right?

Educational researcher Will Thalheimer, PhD, explains why and how the learning environment (from the room you’re in to the noises around you) impacts how learners remember what they learned. If learner’s can’t recall what they were taught, they won’t be able to apply it.

The report, “Aligning the Learning and Performance Context: Creating Spontaneous Remembering,” (54 pp, $295 value) is one of several research resports, articles, and job aids he’s made available free from his Web site. (If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be. Plus he’s available for consulting!)

In it, Dr. Thalheimer writes, “When people are in an environment in which they learned something, the environmental stimuli trigger their memories and thus aid recall of the information that has become associated with the environment. When people imagine an environment without being in that environment, their memories for that environment can still trigger the appropriate memory pathways to aid retrieval of the learned information” (14).

Trying to remember what you learned?

Think about holding that golf club, or the smell of the cooking, or the faces around the speed learning tables.

Ah! Now it’s coming back to you!

Posted in Conferences, Learning in General | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why ANY Revenue Increase is a Good Thing

Posted by Ellen on March 12, 2010

It probably wasn’t the intention of ASAE and The Center to suggest otherwise, but that’s what I got out of one of their recent reports.

I didn’t attend the Great Ideas conference, so I’m pouring over the handouts, blogs, and other summaries about the event in general and the sessions in particular.

Because I wasn’t there, I might be missing some connections by perusing the materials without hearing the accompanying speakers. As always, I’ll just call it as I see it and welcome comments and corrections.

So where did the title of this post come from? What’s gotten me all riled up on such a beautiful day?

Monica Dignam’s presentation at the Great Ideas Conference, “The Economy — An Update on How Associations are Doing,” drew on studies conducted by ASAE and The Center and compared how well CEOs and executive directors across the ASAE membership predicted the actions they and members would take in light of the economic downturn last year and what they actually ended up doing.

The brief report that accompanied the presentation, “Associations and CEOs: A Report on Two Studies During a Down Economy,” did include a surprising bit of data.

Of course the section about education — online learning in particular — grabbed my attention.

According to the executive summary of the report,

“Executive optimism appear to persist despite unmet expectations in the case of online programs. In the Spring, a large majority (60.9 percent) of respondents believed their organizations would receive more revenue from online education
programs in the coming year. In fact, only a third (33.3 percent) reported such an increase.”

First of all, a 33% increase is still an increase — by a third, remember. That’s nothing to go into mourning about. Most organizations would say that if they shifted their learning by a third to a methodology that provides quality education at a time when learners can’t travel as often or for as long, then this is a number to celebrate, not wring their hands over.

The summary goes on:

“Yet a majority of association executives still anticipate significant new
revenues from this type of activity. This may speak to an anticipation that online
tools will provide new revenue streams, but such hope is out of line with the
mood of association members, who (according to a pair of ASAE & The Center
economic surveys conducted in 2008-09) still strongly prefer face-to-face learning,
even despite tighter travel budgets.”

Of course people prefer face-to-face learning. Someone else brings the snacks, after all. And networking is usually more fun in person.

There are a few flaws with concluding that anticipating new revenues from alearning is “out of line”:

The first flaw is assuming cause and effect: even people who prefer face-to-face learning don’t always have the means to attend such events. I might prefer to earn a million dollars a year, but that doesn’t mean I will or that I’d turn down a half-a-million if it was offered instead.

The second flaw is that the conclusion is based on a false choice: association members don’t have to (always) choose online learning OR face-to-face events. They can choose both or neither. Just because respondents prefer face-to-face doesn’t mean they won’t avail themselves of online learning if it meets their needs.

Even if we assume these association leaders were disappointed with a 33% increase in revenue from online learning instead of 60.9% (a huge assumption), we don’t have other information around this data to form the full picture. Did organizations make huge upfront investments in white-label social networking sites (maybe included here in online learning? who knows?) only to discover their earn-back time will take much longer than a few months or a year?

Faulty conclusions aside, what the report does give us is a comparison between the anticipated impact of travel restrictions and budget-tightening, and what actually happened within a relatively short window of time.

What we don’t have — at least not here — is how many individuals attended face to face and online educational events in 2008 or 2007 or 2006.

How do we know how far we’ve come if we don’t know where we started? How will we know when we’ve fully recovered?

Maybe a 33% increase in online revenue is ten times higher than each of the last four years. Rather than being a hand-wringing piece of information, this would be evidence of an astounding accomplishment.

My advice? Don’t read too much into the data — at least not as reported here about elearning.

You’d do well  to keep focusing instead on a workable alearning strategy that will expand your association’s educational reach.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, aLearning Surveys, aLearning Trends | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Belated but Genuine Thanks…

Posted by Ellen on March 10, 2010

… to the folks at e-learning planet who called out the aLearning Blog as one of the best!

It’s great to be recognized and know that our mission to spread awareness about the value of alearning professionals and alearning is succeeding!

And do check out their “Planet Library,” where I found a great self-test from the BBC on “How to Spot a Fake Smile.” Maybe the TV show “Lie To Me” made me wonder how well I could distinguish a fake smile from a genuine one, and this short self-test, driven by short video clips and closing with a great summary alongside my results, was fascinating.

Probably more treasures in the Planet Library I haven’t discovered yet, so take a look, and be inspired with what others are doing to present content online in an interesting — and not necessarily expensive — way!

Posted in Asynchronous Learning Types, eLearning Resources | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »