How to Build an Online Learning Program with a Limited Budget

It’s frustrating when you’re the only one in your office who can see the future. You know your association should provide online learning programs to members and others in your industry. However, you don’t have the budget to hire instructional designers to develop courses. Here are some ways to build an online learning program with a limited budget.

Understand your audience and their needs

First, you have to understand the needs of the different segments of your market. Then, inventory your existing content to see where you fit in the market and what approach you should take.

When taking on any new initiative, it’s best to develop a strategy so you don’t squander resources, especially when you’re trying to create an online learning program with a limited budget. You have to see the big picture, even if you’re a small player, so you head in the right direction. Take the time to understand your target audiences and their needs, so you can determine how your association can best meet those needs given your resources.

What skills do people need to enter a career in your industry, advance their career, or improve business success? Start your research by talking with employers about required skills and any skills gaps they see now and anticipate in the future.

Identify the topics that interest your audience the most. Remember, people may say one thing in a survey about their interests, but their behavior may be more telling. Track their interests by examining:

  • Conference session and webinar attendance
  • Website and blog analytics
  • Clicked links in emails

Don’t rely solely on your volunteer leaders for information about market needs. Talk to other segments of your audience via surveys, polls, and focus groups.

  • What did they need to learn to do their current job? Are those skills still relevant for people coming up behind them?
  • What do they need to learn to advance in their career?
  • Where do they get their education now? What other sources are they considering for future professional development?

Know your competition and their programs. Identify their competitive advantages.

Market research will help you design online learning programs as well as other educational content (conference, publications and webinars) that will appeal to your target audiences—individuals and their employers.

online learning program with a limited budget

Define your online learning program’s focus

Next, figure out where you fit now in the lifelong learning marketplace, and where you could fit in the future if you had additional content. Start small. Where’s the greatest need? What critical skills gaps were identified by employers? And do those gaps match the needs (expressed by behavior or feedback) of your existing audience?

Focus on your existing audience for now—the ones who are willing and able to invest in professional development. They’re already listening to you and trust you. They’re the “low hanging fruit.” Later, you can work on attracting the awareness of new audiences

Taking what you know about your audience’s educational needs, employers’ training needs, and your competitive advantage in the marketplace, sketch out several learning pathways. Each pathway leads to the mastery of a skill, skill set, or body of knowledge. At the end of a learning pathway, the learner receives a digital badge or certificate. This tangible proof of competency will appeal to employers and professionals in your industry as well as those wishing to enter your industry. They will see a learning pathway as being a more valuable educational experience than taking a course here and there.

Inventory your educational content

You can offer educational content as stand-alone units, as part of a class, and also as part of a learning pathway. Learners can commit to the extent they wish.

With the learning pathway approach, you don’t have to design a full-blown course. Instead, you link together a series of modules (lessons) based on the content you already have—or plan to create soon. Take an inventory of your existing and forthcoming content, so you can see which learning pathways you can implement first. Here are several sources of educational content that are often overlooked by associations.

Conference recordings

If you don’t already, start recording conference sessions and other educational events. Expectations for video quality aren’t nearly as high as they used to be thanks to Facebook Live and mobile phone videos. However, the video and audio quality has to be good enough to not distract from the learning experience. Supplement videos with session slide decks (PowerPoint presentations), handouts, and other materials recommended by the speaker.

Educational events

Give learners the option to attend an in-person educational event in lieu of one of the modules in the learning pathway—as long, of course, as the event covers the same material.


If you host webinar recordings on your learning management system (LMS), you can make these on-demand webinars part of a learning pathway.


Start thinking about where you can source new educational content outside of the usual events. For example, ask members and/or staff if you can film them discussing practices, procedures, technical issues, regulations, etc. Develop an agenda for their discussion so all pertinent points are covered.

Take advantage of the presence of industry thought leaders, authors, speakers, and other VIPs at your conferences. Arrange to film them discussing (alone or with others) a pathway topic—or use this material as a deeper dive to pathway lessons.

Search for your topic areas online. If you find a video that would fill in or supplement parts of a learning pathway, contact the creator to get their permission to use it.


Articles, reports, papers, and e-books can serve as required or optional reading in lessons. If your association doesn’t hold the copyright to these materials, make sure you get the copyright owner’s permission to publish. And, beware, the author is not always the copyright owner. In many cases, the publisher is the copyright owner—make sure you ask the right person.


In your online search for content, you may find a podcast episode that fits your curriculum, for example, an episode in which one of your conference speakers is a guest. Reach out to the podcast host and ask permission to either post or link to that episode from your LMS.

Other elements

In addition to the educational content, you will want to develop additional components for each module, for example:

  • Self-assessment taken before starting a lesson or pathway
  • Quizzes during a lesson to help learners recall and apply information
  • Exams at pathway milestones and at the end
  • Evaluation (student feedback) at milestones and at the end

Tweak and improve your online learning program

Track learner participation. Which modules, classes, and pathways are most popular? Which are getting the highest evaluation scores? Which ones are learners finishing quickly? Where are learners slowing down? Where are they dropping out?

In addition to reviewing analytics, gather feedback from learners. Identify places for improvement and make those fixes. When you do, thank those who gave you feedback for their advice—this spreads goodwill and good word-of-mouth marketing. Stay in touch with employers so you can continue to adjust your online learning programs in response to existing and future needs.

Your association can deliver value without breaking the bank. Throughout the year, identify opportunities to collect or create content to use in different learning pathways. You’ll slowly build your online learning library and be better positioned to meet the needs of employers, members, and other professionals entering or advancing in their careers.

Most Valuable Post award winner 2018 - WBT SystemsThis blog won the award of Most Valuable Post from eLearning Learning in 2018 in the Other category. Thanks to all who voted for our blog!
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