New Ideas for Online Learning Programs When You Don’t Have the Resources to Design a Course

This past year, what you need to know as an association professional changed unexpectedly. You had to quickly wrap your mind around new non-dues revenue streams, virtual conferences, remote work, and virtual governance.

Your members are also adjusting to new pandemic and economic conditions. They need to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. You’re exploring new ideas for online learning programs, but how can you spin up new educational content for them when you don’t have the time or money to design an online course?

When is an online course the answer and when isn’t it?

Online courses provide opportunities for social learning (synchronous courses) and convenient, self-paced learning (asynchronous courses). They’re the foundation of certificate programs and learning pathways. They also give professionals a hefty dose of the credits they need for certification programs.

But you probably can’t go from zero to launch in a matter of weeks unless the content is good-to-go. Instructional design requires a budget and time. Courses also risk becoming outdated unless you build flexibility into them, schedule regular reviews, and switch out content when necessary.

Respond quickly to changing member and market needs with these new ideas for online learning

During the pandemic, many associations quickly shifted gears to deliver education that helped their members deal with new operating and/or economic conditions. For example, medical societies hosted webinars on COVID-19 and practice management topics.

Associations continue to launch new educational products, such as this self-paced online course, Pandemic Challenges: How to Return to Work Safely from the American Society of Safety Professionals. Webinars are more common. The Association of Women, Health Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses hosted a webinar on a relevant topic for any association, From Chaos to Calm: Developing a Self-Care Toolkit for COVID-19 and Beyond.

ideas for online learning programs

Swipe good ideas for education programs from others.

Online courses and webinars aren’t your only option. People are looking for opportunities to learn alongside their peers—not just passively watching a presentation but interacting and learning together. Keep an eye out for interesting formats you can adapt. Three recent events in the association community caught our eye.

Association Chat, Tecker International, and Howspace hosted a virtual workshop in three phases:

•    The workshop began with a 30-minute live kickoff session.
•    Phase 1: For one week, attendees engaged in an asynchronous virtual dialogue.
•    Phase 2: They attended a 90-minute collaborative virtual workshop.
•    Phase 3: For three days, they reflected through asynchronous dialogue.

Kaiser Insights and Matchbox Virtual Media hosted a virtual networking incubator. Every two weeks for 60-90 minutes, attendees experimented with a different networking approach and tool.

Better Meetings hosted the Conference Organizers Summit, a “mash-up of conference, support group, peer learning, practical training, and a ton of real human interaction and industry networking.”

In these three examples, attendees learned new skills by discussing and practicing them together—that’s what people want. Yes, these hosts spent time intentionally designing these programs, but I bet it didn’t take months and months—they all have clients to attend to. They identified a market need and acted quickly.

Invite experts to share their knowledge.

Invite industry influencers, thought leaders, or experts in other relevant fields to an Ask Me Anything, lunch and learn, or breakfast with an expert to discuss:

•    What they’re seeing in the industry right now and/or on the horizon.
•    What they’re working on.
•    Who/what they’re watching.
•    Their personal learning practices.

Encourage professional learning communities.

Members want to solve problems together. Professional learning communities—aka communities of practice or professional learning networks—are a valuable membership benefit.

These goal-oriented groups of professionals meet regularly to analyze and improve their professional practices, discuss strategies and tactics, and create solutions. With their peers, they reflect upon what works, what doesn’t work, and how to better reach their goals.

ideas for online learning programs

Offer conference learning circles.

Before your next virtual conference, invite attendees to sign up for a learning circle of peers in their specialty, career stage, or position. Encourage them to hold a pre-event virtual meetup during which they discuss event goals and sessions of interest. At the end of each conference day, they meet up again to discuss what they learned. After the conference, they stick together to hold each other accountable for next steps, whether that’s applying new skills and knowledge or pursuing further education.

Conference learning circles can also become part of a flipped learning experience. Design a few sessions that require pre-event reading, video watching, or podcast listening. During the conference, these sessions can devote time to deeper conversations in breakout rooms. The conversations continue after the conference as attendees apply what they’ve learned and report back.

Host hackathons and solution rooms.

At the 2020 ASAE Technology Exploration Conference, a happy hour solution room gave people the chance to ask fellow attendees for help with a problem and to offer solutions to those seeking help.

Three ASAE councils are hosting a hackathon during which attendees will go into breakout rooms to discuss how they’re applying what they’ve learned about virtual meeting marketing and attendee engagement.

Schedule regular reading and discussion groups.

Instead of an online course, assemble a selection of curated reading recommendations with scheduled discussions. Other discussion group options include:

•    Online book club: Read a few chapters, then meet to discuss them—bonus points if you can get the author to attend the last session.
•    Podcast club: Listen to podcast episodes, then get together for a discussion. Invite the episode’s guests, if appropriate.
•    Video club: Watch a video together with discussion interspersed, or watch first, and discuss later.

Repurpose educational content into microlearning.

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists repurposed published medical case reports into credit-earning microlearning activities, such as three-question tests. If you notice a high demand for specific pieces of knowledge, scan your existing educational content—courses, webinars, and session recordings—to determine if you can pull out chunks of content suitable for a microlearning experience.

Arrange mentoring groups.

Mentoring is a learning experience. Here’s an idea we’re swiping from a MemberSuite post about virtual networking meetups: group mentoring.

It’s “a less intimidating way to get into mentoring by putting less pressure on any one person. With three mentors and three mentees in each group, participants can hear different perspectives, get to know more people of the other generation and share the experience (and responsibility) with their peers.”

See if your members have ideas for social learning experiences. What have they seen or experienced? Talk to your revenue partners too. Experiment—trying anything is better than doing nothing because you don’t have the time or money for what you usually do. It doesn’t have to be perfect—it won’t be perfect. But you’ll show members your association is forward-thinking enough to listen, experiment, and learn, just like them.

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