aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

It Doesn’t Have To Be That Hard

Posted by Ellen on June 6, 2010

Marsha Rhea has great food for thought in her Acronym post, “The Hard Work of Collaborative Learning”:

Let’s be honest about collaborative learning for a moment. People who just want an answer–fast–would rather listen to experts or click their way to a solution.

And those experts–well–they just barely have time to spew forth some of what they know before racing to their next great achievement.

And too many association executives are forced to crank out educational opportunities, because they are programming too many sessions, meetings and workshops to have enough time to inspect their products for learning outcomes and quality experiences.

Is this assessment too harsh?

No, Marsha, it’s not. And I agree that we need to spend more time and energy creating collaborative learning opportunities.


We have to be careful we’re not trying to put a bandaid on an inch-wide gash or stitch up a tiny scratch.

Remember once upon a time when list servs and forums and bulletin boards were pretty new and less moderated than they are today? Remember that you were expected to lurk until you understood the lingo and other basics of the group before chiming in? Remember those awful flaming messages that were launched at any innocent “newbie” who asked what the group deemed to be a question that was too basic?

Of course none of us wants to go back to that, but here’s my point: if you’re wondering why your collaborative learning events aren’t as successful as you think they should be, the answer might lie in the first part of Marsha’s post.

— People do need answers, and often they need them quickly.

— Those with the answers have been asked for those answers so often, over and over, that at some point they start to pull away from the conversation (forum, listserv, educational event, volunteer opportunity, etc.).

Marsha’s suggestions for kick-starting collaborative learning in your organization are good ones.

Allow me to add another.

One of the first rules in instructional design is to know your learner. Level of experience or knowledge of the subject/topic and the reason(s) they need to know the content are especially important.

Here’s why:

[Click to enlarge]

This is especially helpful for education leaders in trade associations and professional organizations: learners who are early in their careers have different training needs than the “veterans” who have more experience. Early careerists need more fundamentals that can generally be provided through more structured learning situations; experienced veterans who have lived through that learning curve benefit more from direct peer-to-peer (PTP) interactions.

Not that the early careerists wouldn’t benefit from PTP learning as well — but unless the exchange is clearly set up for mentoring or coaching, you risk alienating your vets by putting them in a “learning” environment in which they won’t be the ones learning.

You think this isn’t happening at your learning events? Think again. Have you seen this combination of comments in your event feedback?

“I’ve heard this before. One or two new ideas but mostly a repeat of what I already know and do.”

“This was great! I took a bunch of notes and can’t wait to get back to put the in action!”

“Old stuff… isn’t there a new angle?”

“Loved it! Learned so much!”

These “contradictory” comments are evidence that you’ve attracted a range of early careerists and vets, and that your content was better received by the former than the latter. Figuring out how to make the session more collaborative could work, but you need to do it in a way that balances what the newbies need and engaging the vets so they will learn something as well.

It’s not an easy balance to find, especially when you don’t know who is sitting in the room. Who are the vets? How many are there? What’s their level of experience with the topic? Why did they show up — what do they hope to gain from the session? Who are the early careerists? What do they hope to gain from the session?

The experience of the vets needs to be valued and appreciated while the curiosity and enthusiasm of the early careerists is nurtured.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. Here’s one idea of how to set up such a session:

1. Think of a problem they’re all likely to face related to the topic.

2. Design a scenario around that problem (better yet, design several — one for each table of attendees).

3. Organize the way you’ll present the scenario by assigning roles to various levels of experience.

4. Set the room in rounds. At the start of the session, tell everyone they’re probably going to end up at another table, with other people.

5. Using the four corners of the room, ask those who’ve been in their positions less than a year to go to one corner, those with 1-3 in another corner, 4-9 in a third, and those with 10 or more years in another corner (of course, you should change these options so they’ll make sense for the averages in your industry).

6. Assign at least one person from each corner to each table until everyone is assigned and the tables have roughly the same number of individuals from the various experience levels at each.

7. Present the scenario. If you can, use a variety of scenarios or case studies so the tables aren’t all working on the same ones. The scenarios/case studies should be designed around a problem that must be solved. Because everyone knows their group has at least one vet and at least one “newbie,” encourage (or better yet, set up specific) roles encourage the learners to share experiences and questions, expose their curiosity, and exchange ideas.

8. Remind the groups that there is no absolute answer, and that the value in the exercise is learning how the problem could be solved, maybe in different ways. Let them know each group will have a chance to describe their situation and what they decided needs to be done.

Any push back you get from collaborative and social learning is usually from individuals who expected to learn something and didn’t. Sometimes they ended up being the “facilitator” (because of their level of experience related to the topic) when they weren’t expecting it.

Setting up the learning event so those attending know immediately that their strengths will be leveraged so they can learn from each other is the key.

Is that so hard?

One Response to “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Hard”

  1. […] proportion of educational theory is based on some sort of linear change. Here’s an example from a blog I was reading today: Personal Social Learning Continuum – source: aLearning […]

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