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Online Learning for Trade Associations

Posts Tagged ‘Acronym’

Empowering Subversive Implementation

Posted by Ellen on August 14, 2011

Odd title, eh? If you haven’t yet read Maggie McGary’s post over at Acronym (“Are you empowered to implement what you learn?”), you’ll get a head start on where I’m going with this.

First, I completely agree with Maggie. I’d add that — at least in my case — I had piles of notes from books, magazines, conversations, social networking threads, blogs, etc etc, as well as those notes from conferences I attended.

Of those, I managed to make a couple of changes, create one or two new inspired projects, and otherwise implement what I had learned. Sometimes it was with the support and encouragement of the organization’s leadership.

Sometimes it was through sheer determination and what I started to call “subversive leadership.”

Call it manipulation. Call it whatever you want, but it worked.

And it was simple: I just did it. I kept my efforts under the radar, and worked slowly yet patiently — sometimes through lunches or other “lag” times. Then when I had something to show — a demo, a bit of the project, a sliver that hinted at what could be done or the results of what I managed to accomplish — I shared it with the appropriate leader. Sometimes that person was the executive director. Sometimes the chair of the education committee.

You don’t always need permission to do something. Sometimes you just have to give yourself permission.

Sometimes you have to empower yourself.

Posted in aLearning Strategies, Justifying aLearning, Learning in General | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

What? Or How?

Posted by Ellen on June 19, 2010

Let me say right off the bat that if you’re doing needs assessment (you are, aren’t you?!?), I’m glad to hear it.

If you’re coming up with a narrowed (preferably prioritized) list of topics to cover in upcoming educational programs, kudos and all that.

But you’re only getting started. Take a closer look at your planned topics. Are they formulated around “what” something is or “how” to do something?

Lots of chatter around the blogosphere these days about collaborative learning (Marsha Rea at Acronym is doing a great series on this topic) and getting our events to be more interactive than passive (thanks to Jeff Hurt at MidCourse Corrections for pushing this).

Transitioning your events from passive learning to active learning, transforming your “presenters” into “facilitators” doesn’t have to be complicated.

One way to start the process is — believe it or not — as simple as shifting the focus of their sessions from “what” to “how.”

Here are some examples of general “what” topics:

  • The Benefits of Being a Volunteer
  • What You Need to Know about the Latest XYZ Regulations

And… here is a “how” version of each of those topics:

  • How to Share Your Expertise as a Volunteer
  • How to Comply with the New XYZ Regulations 

See the difference? Sometimes “what” treatments come disguised as “how” titles: “How the Latest XYZ Regulations Could Affect You” is just another information dump. Think “How TO Do [fill in the blank]” to avoid that trap.
Adult learners need to see a use for what they’re learning — the usefulness is where the value in the topic lies for them. If they can’t apply what they’re learning, what’s the point?

So decide what actions you want people to be able to take when they leave your session: what should they be able to do, or do better, than they could when they walked into the room?

Notice that the “how to” topics suggest the types of practice you can structure the event around? Notice, too, that you’ll end up covering some of the “what” — but that the focus has shifted to the application of the “what.”

For example….

  • How would you walk your members through a session on how to volunteer?
    • What steps do they need to take?
    • Is there a form they need to fill out?
    • Where do they find that form?
    • Are there deadlines they need to heed?
    • Can you provide them with a handout (not a Powerpoint printout!) showing all the information they’ll need?
    • Would a checklist of steps help?
    • How about giving them a timeline or calendar with important deadlines or program and meeting dates?
  • The compliance topic might require an initial, quick review of the most important
    regulatory changes so everyone is on the same page.

    • Providing a handout that clearly explains those changes means they’ll have the information in a form they can easily refer to — in the session and later — so they can focus on how what they’ll need to DO.
    • Small group tasks using worksheets and calculators or calendars or resource planning tools can make what might seem a dull session into a highly interactive — and immediately relevant — learning event.

In his “Aligning Learning and Performance Contexts” report, Dr. Will Thalheimer writes: “Our goal as designers of instruction is to determine the boundary conditions of the performance context and align the learning context with those parameters as much as possible.” (13).

What are you doing today to align the training you’re delivering to your members’ working environment? No, you can’t recreate that environment — but you can create tools and activities that make their learning more applicable when they return to their environment.

Starting with the “how” rather than the “what” is as good a place to start as any.

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

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?

Posted in Conferences, Learning in General, Social Learning | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »