Imagine this. For the last few months, you’ve heard members talking about having to master inbound marketing. In the online community, at events, during meetings, the topic keeps coming up. Obviously, there’s a market need. But which educational delivery method would be best for a new program on inbound marketing?
You have plenty of options:
• Instructor-led classroom training
• Instructor-led online course (synchronous)
• Self-paced online course (asynchronous)
• Self-paced online learning program (shorter than a course)
The answer is… it depends. First, it depends upon your learning strategy and curriculum.
Consult your learning strategy before choosing an educational delivery method
You can’t make a decision like this in a vacuum. With a learning strategy, you can make good decisions about the best tactics (delivery methods) for implementing that strategy.
Assuming you have a learning strategy, we can also assume you did your homework before developing it, for example, market research. You have a good understanding of your audience(s), their learning needs and preferences, and the competition. You’ve also identified many of the learning outcomes you want to achieve through your programs, for example, the changes your programs will make in your members and learners’ professional lives, and in the workplace.
Now, ask yourself:
• Does this new program idea align with your learning strategy?
• Do the learner outcomes for the program align with the goals in your strategy?
• How far up the priority list are these outcomes?
• Will it help your association achieve any of its strategic goals?
• How does this topic fit into your educational curriculum? Does it fill a gap?
• Would it attract a new segment of your target audience if you offered it in a particular way?
Before you start thinking about a delivery method, make sure the new program meets audience needs and fits into your curriculum. It should fill a gap or complement what’s already there.
In this era of accelerating change, especially in the workforce, learning strategies must be flexible. But they should be flexible only for good reason, for example, an emerging unmet need, not because a board or committee member is looking for a pet project.
Here are some organizational factors to consider when deciding on an educational delivery method for a new program.
Does the topic fit the requirements of any of your existing or forthcoming certificate, certification, or other credentialing programs?
Could you increase participation in any of these credentials if you had more programs offered either in-person or online? Or at different price points?
What can you afford to design and deliver? You may want to test the market with a webinar series before investing in instructional design for a new course.
Consider also: online programs will eliminate expenses for venue rental and instructor travel. An asynchronous online course will save money on instructor costs.
How quick to market do you need to be? If a new regulation is going into effect, you may want to provide training as quickly as possible. A webinar might be the best choice. Or, if your audience prefers microlearning, you could put together a short e-learning program consisting of several 12-minute modules.
Online instruction requires a different skillset than in-person instruction. If you don’t have experienced and effective online instructors, you may want to start a train-the-trainer program to get them up to speed.
An advantage of asynchronous courses is only having to pay for an instructor’s time once and not having to deal with instructor scheduling issues.
Who offers a program on this topic and delivers similar learning outcomes? Is there enough business for everyone?
Is there an underserved audience segment for this topic? Is there an unmet need for online learning?
What learning experiences are missing from the competition’s offerings? For example, would learners benefit from a blended learning experience? Could you differentiate your program with social learning, for example, online discussion forums and group projects? Or, by offering more interaction with an online instructor?
Now, let’s look at program-specific factors you should consider when choosing an educational delivery method.
Some new skills require practice and immediate feedback, for example, public speaking or conflict resolution. A classroom setting provides the opportunity to read facial expressions and body language.
Level and depth of information
If learners have varying levels of knowledge and experience, an asynchronous course gives them the ability to test out of content they already know. If they’re in a synchronous course, they’ll likely get impatient waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.
Consistency of instruction
If a topic requires a consistent level of training, such as a compliance issue, an asynchronous program is best since it’s the same instruction for every learner. A topic might be interpreted and taught differently if it’s given to multiple instructors in synchronous programs. One instructor might even teach it differently from class to class.
If you foresee a program having a long shelf life without the need for regular updates, you can afford to invest in instructional design for a course. In a synchronous course, the instructor can update learners on any changes that arise. If you develop an asynchronous course, use an easy-to update format, like text, for any information that might change.
If the program is on a regularly changing topic, consider formats that are less expensive to design, such as webinars or stand-alone modules. For example, information in a program on “using social media for membership marketing” needs regular updates since social media platforms constantly change their features and terms of engagement. A topic like this is best delivered by webinar or in a format you don’t mind replacing frequently.
Interaction with instructor
In synchronous, instructor-led online courses, instructors can track learner activities and progress. The real-time format gives both learner and instructor the opportunity for feedback. The instructor can also invite guest speakers to webcasts or online discussions.
The instructor can personalize the learning experience to some extent. They can spot a learner’s areas of weakness and strength, and provide support or ideas for deeper dives.
In asynchronous programs, the learner is on their own, unless you offer some type of mentoring or coaching service—a great way to differentiate your programs from the competition.
Interaction with classmates
Synchronous programs offer more opportunities for collaboration and social learning, such as study groups, group discussions, and group activities and projects. Since everyone’s working on the same lessons, real-time conversations are more fruitful.
In asynchronous programs, learners may not have the same sense of community with fellow students. Discussion forums can help learners find their peers, but creating collaborative experiences will be challenging.
Blended learning could provide the best of both worlds if you center the program around an in-person event. Learners could go through coursework at their own pace before meeting in person for a workshop at your annual conference. After the event, they do follow-up coursework, perhaps a deeper dive at their own pace again. An online discussion forum keeps them in touch with their classmates.
Your audience isn’t a homogenized group. They have a diverse mix of preferences, abilities, interests, and needs, so you should offer a diverse mix of learning experiences that appeal to all segments of your target audience.
You also have to understand the obstacles to registration. Why don’t they attend the annual conference or in-person educational programs? Why aren’t they signing up for synchronous or asynchronous online courses? What stands in the way? Money? Time? Assumptions?
One of the advantages of online programs is that location doesn’t matter. Learners can be anywhere across the nation and globe. However, one of the advantages of in-person programs is the opportunity for meeting and connecting with fellow learners.
Budget and schedule
What percentage of members and of your market attend your in-person educational programs and conferences? Most likely, a larger percentage doesn’t have the budget for travel expenses, or the schedule flexibility or supervisor permission to take time away from the office.
Think about offering a webinar series on the most popular topics of your in-person educational programs. If you have a popular instructor-led classroom course, consider offering it as an online course.
Provide programs that “low-budget” members can afford. For example, break up a course into a series of programs that will be easier to afford and, therefore, appeal to an underserved segment of your target audience.
Offer popular synchronous programs as asynchronous programs too. Many people don’t have control of their schedules. They can’t commit to a class every Tuesday at 3 p.m., but they will commit to finding several hours a week to study on their own time.
Familiarity with e-learning
What if you build it (an online program) and they don’t come? If your audience has limited experience with online learning, it’s best to ease them in. Start with webinars, and then short online programs. Only after they have shown an appetite for e-learning, should you consider online courses.
Recognition of competencies
Certifications, certificates, and digital badges are appealing to all types of audiences. The prospect of earning a credential is motivating, however, only a portion of your audience will have the motivation and budget to stick with a certification program requiring years of continuing education. Offer certificate programs and microcredentials for those who are just starting out in their career, who seek specialized credentials, or who need shorter timeframes to stay motivated.
Digital badges are especially appealing to learners because they serve as a public validation of their accomplishments. Employers like them too because the badges provide proof that the learner has the competencies needed to succeed.
If your target audience aren’t natural students with a high motivation for learning, you may want to break up courses into a series of smaller programs as part of a learning pathway. Find a way to give learners a faster sense of achievement and progress. Their sense of progress will motivate them to register for the next program.
Offer learning pathways that award certificates or microcredentials upon successful completion. For example, in the association management context, only professionals with the required experience and CE credits are qualified for the CAE certification. However, some professionals might be ready to explore a certificate or microcredential for a specialized skill, such as membership marketing.
A membership marketing learning pathway might lead to a certificate upon completion. Or, different digital badges could be awarded as the learner reaches certain milestones and successfully proves their competency. These digital badges could be awarded in inbound marketing, SEO, and social media.
Now you have some factors to consider when choosing educational delivery methods that fill the gaps in your curriculum and appeal to the unmet needs of your different target audiences.