5 Lessons from Online Education Pioneers That Will Improve Your Association’s Online Courses

Back in the ‘90s, several innovative associations were our industry’s online education pioneers. But, based on personal experience, the learner experience wasn’t that engaging. In the last 15 years, online learning improved and expanded as associations, higher education, MOOCs, and for-profits like LinkedIn responded to the growing market need. Then the pandemic hit.

Suddenly, every association had to transition to online learning—although many refused. Unfortunately, the learner experience was often as scintillating as someone reading the farm report. But associations that delivered engaging virtual conferences and online education programs saw their audiences expand and their revenue increase, sometimes even quintuple.

Since so many associations are still newbies in the online learning space, surely the real online education pioneers have lessons to share. Fortunately, McKinsey & Company did the research for us and pulled lessons from the experiences of universities and for-profit education providers who led the march into online education.

5 lessons from online education pioneers

You’ll notice in these lessons that online learning success relies more heavily on talented people than it does technology. Successful and effective educational programs are developed, managed, and delivered by instructional designers, education professionals, instructors, and presenters who understand the science of adult learning.

online education pioneers

#1: Offer a barrier-free experience for learners

We can’t ignore technology because you must rely on it to deliver the online learning experience. A user-friendly learning platform is essential, so pick the learning management system (LMS) that best meets your association’s software requirements. Learners must be able to access your learning center, program catalog, and courses from their phone or tablet.

The learning center or catalog must be easy to find from your home page, member portal, career center, or any other location on your website. Once someone purchases their course, they should be able to access it immediately. Your LMS’ API must allow for single sign-on (SSO) so members and customers don’t have to log in every time they want to access their course.

The LMS should have its own online discussion forum or integrate with your association’s online community so learners can easily discuss and apply new knowledge with instructors and classmates.

#2: Provide an educational road map

Online courses require a different level of accountability, especially self-paced or asynchronous courses. You must develop strategies for helping learners to stay motivated. Motivated learners are successful learners—and repeat customers.

One way to motivate prospective learners before they even register for a course is to map out possible futures for them. Design learning or career pathways that show them what they need to learn (and what courses they need to take) to achieve different career goals. Allow them to earn credentials along the way, such as digital badges or microcredentials, that they can share on LinkedIn.

Offer videos and tutorials that prepare learners for the experience ahead and help them develop the habits necessary for successful online learning. Make sure their expectations are realistic, particularly the time required to do coursework. Provide study tips and resources.

McKinsey described how online education company Pluralsight shares movie-trailer-style overviews of its course content. They also offer trial options so learners can get a sense of what to expect before making financial commitments.

Ask learners to take a self-assessment to identify gaps in their knowledge. An assessment can also determine where they’re ahead of the game so they can test out of modules—this will boost their confidence and allow them to make quicker progress.

Break content up into chunks so learners can fully digest, apply, and retain new information. Make heavy use of quizzes to measure and recognize progress as they go. Offer support by scheduling instructor, teaching assistant, or educational guidance counselor office hours.

online education pioneers

#3: Use a mix of learning formats

McKinsey pointed out the convenience of online learning since learners can access it whenever or wherever they want, but the distractions are more convenient too. You have to work twice as hard to keep the online learner’s attention and interest.

Mix up content format to keep it interesting. For example, use text, PowerPoint presentations, video, audio, and whatever other creative delivery method you can find. Think like a TV news producer when designing courses. Go easy on lectures; supplement them with interviews and panel discussions. Invite learners from similar courses to exclusive live chats or web casts with guest speakers.

Learners are more engaged when they can interact on their own with the content and “in the classroom” with their fellow learners. In live courses, let them read and watch lectures and other material at home so their time together is focused on discussing and applying what they’ve learned. In asynchronous courses, variety is even more important. Intersperse reading with exercises or quizzes.

#4: Adopt an engaging approach to instruction

Lectures—aka Death by PowerPoint—are sadly still the norm in many online courses, which is why so many of them have high dropout rates and a lack of return business. Instructors and presenters must understand how to teach online learners—don’t assume they do. They must know how to capture and hold a learner’s attention, and help learners digest, apply, and retain information. Require online instructor training for every instructor to ensure they will apply the basic principles of adult learning.

Incorporate real-world applications into lessons, such as individual and group exercises, case studies, scenarios, role-playing, and individual and/or team projects. Interactive group activities are easy to do with Zoom breakouts. For asynchronous programs, you must get more creative. You can offer discussion forums for learners taking the same course. Although they may not all be going through the course simultaneously, they can still engage with others studying the same material.

Associations often seek microvolunteering activities for members, but never consider the volunteering potential in online courses. Ask course alumni if they would like to spend a few hours a month serving as teaching assistants who participate in discussions. You could sweeten the deal by rewarding them with promo credits at certain hourly milestones.

#5: Create a caring network

One of McKinsey’s main findings focused on creating a caring network, so this isn’t a nice-to-have, but a must-have. Learners choose to invest time and money with your association. Don’t respond as a faceless institution. Find ways to demonstrate to learners that the course they’re taking was designed and is managed by people who care about them as members of the professional community.

Learners have a professional need for the skills and knowledge they want to gain, but they have unspoken emotional needs too. Help them meet and get to know classmates. Allow space in your discussion forums for off-topic conversations to happen so learners can get to know each other in more than a superficial or professional way.

Show your investment in their success by offering the support learners need to be successful. Provide the services of contract or volunteer guidance counselors, success coaches, or tutors. Track student engagement. When you detect a lack of participation, gently inquire so you can find out what’s going on with them and how you can help.

Online courses are out of reach for many people who don’t have supportive employers. Find revenue partners who will fund sponsored scholarships for early career, unemployed, or unsupported professionals.

It’s difficult to juggle an online course with the responsibilities of work and home. Finding time for coursework is a constant challenge and can lead to stress and burnout. Include wellbeing tips in program orientation information and tell learners about other wellbeing resources provided by your association.

Your audience can find online courses anywhere these days. If you want to differentiate your programs, follow the lead of online education pioneers in these five lessons identified by McKinsey.

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