Lessons from NIGP: How to Quickly Convert In-Person Courses to Online Courses

NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement had more than 100 in-person, one- to three-day courses scheduled between March and mid-May when the coronavirus shut down meetings everywhere. Yet, in just three weeks, they converted more than half those in-person courses to online delivery.

We wanted to know how they did it so we talked to Laura Shelters, M.ED., director of content research and development at NIGP. Their story shows what it takes to quickly respond to market changes—think of it as your education disaster recovery plan.

NIGP’s timeline to convert in-person courses to online courses

The NIGP team went into action the week of March 9. The instructors and learners for courses scheduled through May were given the option to convert to online or postpone. Those decisions were made by March 17.

NIGP started converting courses as decisions came in. The first online courses they scheduled were assigned to experienced online instructors so Laura’s team had time to train and prepare the remaining instructors. By March 30, the instructors of more than 50 courses scheduled through the end of May were ready to go.

Now NIGP is evaluating on a week-by-week basis whether they need to look into June and beyond. The entire three-week process was only possible because NIGP’s education strategy gave them the nimbleness they needed to act so quickly.

The NIGP advantage: modular design based on a competency framework and learning pathways

NIGP members are procurement professionals who work for public and governmental agencies. Many of them don’t have large training and travel budgets, so online learning programs are essential.

About 18 months ago, NIGP changed their approach to program design. They used to offer eight- to ten-week instructor-led online courses—the old semester approach borrowed from academia by many associations. Now, they offer shorter courses in three formats:

•    Live instructor-led two-week virtual courses
•    On-demand courses
•    In-person courses

No matter which format a learner chooses, they can expect consistency in the learning experience because of NIGP’s design strategy

NIGP’s content is designed “to be more flexible and ready for any modality, with a little bit of massaging,” said Laura. This flexibility is possible because content is based on competency modules. NIGP designed a Public Procurement Competency Framework made up of seven focus areas and 33 individual competencies.

convert in-person courses to online courses

“Each competency is based on a specific subject matter and taught in a modular fashion using a variety of learning tactics from self-paced online courses to group assignments, case studies, videos, and experiential activities.”

This new education portfolio, called Pathways, consists of personalized competency-based learning and credentialing paths for every stage of a public procurement career—foundation, advanced, and expert. Information about the strategy and details of Pathways is available on its FAQ page—perhaps the best FAQ page I’ve seen for an association education program. Here, they explain this personalized and pathway-based approach:

“Our goal is to provide options and pathways for earning public recognition regardless of whether you are just entering the public procurement profession or are a seasoned professional… We are giving you total flexibility based on what you want or need to learn—and then integrating our credentialing system around that learning to give you the recognition you deserve.”

Credentialing is offered at three levels:

•    Level one: competency (digital) badges
•    Level two: core certificates
•    Level three: designations

convert in-person courses to online courses

Modular content assets

Because content is built in small chunks, it’s modular, flexible, and easier to update. The new online courses NIGP built last month use the same content assets as the in-person courses. For example, a role play exercise in the in-person course was converted to a breakout room exercise in the new online course. Because TopClass LMS has an end-to-end integration with Zoom, NIGP could build breakout rooms and discussions into their online course design.

In-person and online courses use the same accompanying instructor guide and student workbook—a learning journal where learners capture best practices, nuggets, and examples. Because these content assets were already built, when NIGP had to quickly convert more than 50 in-person courses into online courses, they only had to “tweak the virtual delivery documents to better fit the virtual environment—but the content is the same.”

Action mapping design

NIGP designs their courses with an action mapping approach, their “preferred build methodology.” The curriculum focuses on getting learners to practice the competency so they can apply it back at the job. For example, NIGP built case studies into their curriculum so learners can work through real-life scenarios and practice what they’re learning. The goal is for learners to “leave with the ability to execute, not just understand.”

convert in-person courses to online courses

NIGP’s learner engagement strategies

In a virtual environment, you must focus on learner engagement techniques. Laura recommends identifying the best technology for engagement—in their case, TopClass LMS and its integration with Zoom. She suggests using icebreakers to help learners become comfortable sharing with each other on the platform.

Interactive exercises are mandatory because, she said, “Adult learners are social beings. They learn best from hearing about others’ experiences, so include networking in the curriculum.” Other social learning activities include breakout rooms, learning challenges, and creating teams. Keeping class sizes small, with only 15 learners per class, facilitates better interaction in activities and more in-depth conversation in the discussion forums linked to each class group. 

Laura said, “Building content that focuses more on sharing experiences and practicing tasks allowed us to easily transition to the virtual environment with little re-engineering and still allowing our learners to be really engaged and part of the learning experience.”

Virtual course moderator

NIGP provides a moderator for the instructor during live courses. Having a moderator allows the instructor to focus on delivering the content and interacting with learners instead of managing logistical issues. Laura said, “We use our staff for this effort, but if you do not have that luxury you could train your instructors/SMEs to support each other.”


Build in break time for any online learning experience. “People need to rest their eyes and unplug. Add 5-10 minute breaks every 45-90 minutes for folks to just chat or get away from their computer for a few,” said Laura.

Preparing instructors for online learning

Only ten NIGP instructors were already teaching virtual courses so preparing the others for online learning was “one of our biggest undertakings the past few weeks”

NIGP very quickly created a virtual training session with tips and best practices for teaching in an online environment. They also offered a third-party provider’s on-demand course for teaching online and a technology training session on Zoom and TopClass LMS.

They aren’t forcing their instructors to teach online. They told instructors about their plan and asked them to volunteer if they were comfortable and interested. So far, 28 instructors have been trained for online learning. NIGP is also pairing new online instructors with more seasoned ones and encouraging them to sit in on one of their courses so they can see the pro in action.

“We have received really good feedback on our evaluations so far. Our learners were just thrilled we were able to move forward with the training,” said Laura. “It is amazing how well the virtual environment works. In our experience, over the past couple of weeks, learners are sharing and really happy with the experience. People feel less vulnerable to judgement and are more willing to participate in discussions. You just have to build content that allows that sharing and have instructors who serve more as facilitators.”

If you’d like to hear more about Pathways, Laura will be speaking about NIGP’s workforce development strategy at the 2020 digitalNow conference in Orlando—now postponed until December.

“It is 2020, pandemic or not, education is going more and more virtual. As organizations that provide professional development, we have to be in front of these trends to best serve our learners,” said Laura. These next few months are a great opportunity for your association to experiment with virtual educational events and online learning.

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