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Report highlights growing pains of association e-learning

ASAE's past economic surveys have shown that the difficulties for in-person meetings and educational programs in the past few years have led to high hopes for online education to fill the gap. A new report from association learning consultancy Tagoras shows that a high percentage of associations are indeed investing in technology-enabled learning, but they report mixed results in two key categories: overall usage and revenue production.

Among respondents to the Association Learning + Technology 2011: State of the Sector survey, slightly more said they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with course enrollment and revenue generation than those who said they were somewhat or very satisfied.

Usage and Revenue Satisfaction Chart
Source: Association Learning + Technology 2011: State of the Sector. Click to enlarge.
Images republished with permission.

The good news is that 63.5 percent of the survey respondents said they rate their associations' overall use of e-learning as "somewhat successful," and 15 percent call it "very successful." Authors Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele offer some insight into the practices that are common among that 15 percent:

"We found that organizations that consider themselves to be very successful were significantly more likely than average to do the following:

  • View revenue generation as a key benefit.
  • Make use of professional instructional design.
  • Have a formal, documented e-learning strategy.
  • Have a formal, documented product development process.
  • Embrace more interactive forms of e-learning (e.g., facilitated and blended offerings, use of discussion boards, games, and simulations)."

As Cobb and Steele put it, "E-learning has arrived in the association sector but remains far from mature." Surely complicating that maturation process is that the growth in options for learning technology has coincided with difficult financial times for the associations that are hopeful about their potential.

The practices of the ones that are making it work, though, aren't revolutionary, but surprisingly few are deploying those practices: "[R]elatively few organizations with active e-learning programs have developed a formal [e-learning] strategy (22.0 percent) [or] created a product development process (22.9 percent)," according to the report.

I'm curious if this lack of thorough development for e-learning strategy and process is the standard byproduct of the overworked and underresourced association or if the relative youth of e-learning as a discipline makes plotting out a strategy more difficult.

Interested to hear your thoughts. And keep an eye on the Tagoras blog, where Cobb says he plans to explore the report in more detail in coming weeks.



The root cause behind a lack of e-learning strategy is an intriguing question. The relative youth of e-learning does seem to play a role, as you suggest, Joe. Older e-learning programs are more likely to have strategies--only 9.5 percent of associations with e-learning programs less than a year old have formal strategies, while 28.6 percent of associations with e-learning programs older than five years have a formal strategy.

We also heard anecdotally that sometimes folks getting started feel they don't even know enough to plan out an e-learning strategy. One person we interviewed for the report, when asked if her association had documented an e-learning strategy, said, "We didn't have enough knowledge to even know how to plan that kind of stuff out."

Of course, the irony is that may be when a strategy is most helpful. But the common phenomenon of associations being overworked and underresourced means staff may not have time to devote to getting up to speed to put together a strategy or the money to hire outside help.

I have a number of thoughts on the state of association online learning. In no particular order...

- In think in an overall sense, associations probably have unrealistic expectations in terms of usage and revenue. We've probably past the early adopter stage when it comes to online learning, but I don't think we're at the middle of the bell curve either. It's still an investment -- learning how to do it well now, so you can do it well later for more people.

- Alternatives: associations probably think too linearly. Information acquisition and knowledge sharing happens in many different ways online, only some of which would be called online learning -- but we think about it in these isolated buckets.

- E-learning strategies are not going to come in cookie cutter form. I think a lot of ideas in the association sector are relatively easy to transfer from one org to the next, but what works for one group's online certification training isn't going to work for the next group. Too many factors come into play: the content itself, member demographics, and the organization's culture.

- The e-learning space is still chaotic, and consumer preferences and expectations change rapidly. Associations are based on governance models that are based in some way or shape on democratic governing principles. And democratic governing principles are intentionally inefficient. Change is not supposed to happen at a whim. That serves associations well in some ways, but it hinders them in chaotic markets. I think most associations see this and try to develop systems and processes -- whether formal or informal -- to be more agile. Only a few, in my opinion, succeed.

Joe -- I agree with Celisa and some of what Scott said about why organizations aren't devising an elearning strategy before plunging in. A lack of understanding about the choices is clear evidence that association leaders are still learning what their elearning choices are and therefore how to plan with them in mind. Time is a factor, I'd add. The process of developing an online learning strategy is another demand in an already overloaded schedule -- it's easier (and faster) to just say, "We'll do some Webinars" or "Let's put up a course and see what happens" rather than lay out a plan for elearning offerings.

And while Scott's correct that an elearning strategy isn't something you can simply cut from one organization and paste into your own, the *process* of developing a strategy is something that doesn't have to be reinvented.

I've been advocating for years that learning leaders who don't find support for an elearning strategy within their organization to develop one anyway -- and I detail how to do that in my book, "aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning." I call it subversive leadership -- even if the the organization doesn't want a strategy, a good learning leader NEEDS one. They can keep it in a drawer or file cabinet and never show another sole, but it's something they can use as their own guide for making sure the organization hits the key success criteria the Tagoras report cites.

What the report reminds us is that it isn't elearning that fails us -- rather we fail elearning.

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