The State of Association E-Learning: Cloudy with a Chance of Sunshine

The future looks bright for association e-learning. The growing lifelong learning market provides plenty of opportunity. However, one missing element is clouding the picture for associations. One weakness is holding associations back from reaching their market potential and becoming lifelong learning powerhouses. Can you guess what it is?

I learned about this vulnerability while reading the fifth edition of Association Learning + Technology from Tagoras. This recently released report, based on a survey of more than 200 associations, describes how trade and professional associations are using technology to enable and enhance learning. You can listen to Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele, co-founders of Tagoras, discuss highlights of the report on episode 99 of their Leading Learning podcast.

association e-learning cloudy with a chance of sunshine

Start with an association e-learning strategy.

Tagoras learned that 93% of the survey participants use technology to deliver learning. Webinars and webcasts are the most popular platform for association e-learning (92%), and learning management systems (LMS) are the second most popular choice (67%).

Here’s where it starts to look ugly: 70% of these associations don’t have a formal, documented e-learning strategy. 7% of them aren’t sure if they have one—if you don’t know, you probably don’t—so let’s make that 77% without a strategy. Therefore, only 23% of associations have an e-learning strategy.

And, that 23% is probably higher than the reality because of the sample group. Who participates in this survey? Most likely the cream of the crop—professional development (PD) staff who knew about the survey because they read the Tagoras blog and/or newsletter—professionals who are themselves lifelong learners. Where would people like this work? You guessed it, the cream of the crop associations.

Tagoras said the percentage of associations without an e-learning strategy has been relatively flat over the years, “averaging not much more than 20 percent of respondents.” However, more associations have a general learning strategy: 38% have a formal, general learning strategy, 62% don’t or aren’t sure.

If you have an e-learning strategy, you’re more likely to see a net increase in revenue from e-learning programs. 62% of those with an association e-learning strategy said e-learning has increased the net revenue of their educational offerings, compared to 45% of those without a strategy.

Throughout the report, Tagoras suggests questions for association staff to consider, for example:

  • How does your e-learning (or learning) strategy contribute to the overall strategy of your organization?
  • How is that contribution measured?

Education is part of the mission of nearly every association. Your e-learning strategy should align with your association’s strategic plan and objectives. To reinforce how critical your programs are to the association’s mission and to ensure you get appropriate funding for those programs, you must be able to demonstrate (with data) how these programs contribute to the mission.

More questions from Tagoras:

  • What value do your e-learning programs offer that is different from, or potentially superior to, the value offered in your face-to-face educational offerings?
  • Is this value clearly reflected in your positioning and promotion?
  • How will you leverage resources of other departments to deliver, market, and support e-learning?
  • Has your leadership tried your e-learning programs? (A good idea to gain their buy-in.)

One way to express gratitude for your volunteer leaders’ hard work is by giving them discounts or credits to use for e-learning programs. Having e-learning champions on your board and in your leadership pipeline bodes well for future budgeting decisions.

Develop processes for e-learning product development and pricing.

A deeper dive into the survey reveals additional missed opportunities for associations: 66% of survey participants do not have a formal, documented product development process for e-learning programs. How are they making decisions with such a willy-nilly approach? Tagoras says many rely on a committee, board, or staff to suggest e-learning topics. However, relying on these insular groups is risky because they don’t represent the full range of learners in your market. You risk getting biased input or you might only hear the loudest, most persistent voices.

Associations also rely on member surveys and program evaluations. Again, this feedback may only represent an engaged sample of your potential market. And, the report cautions, you must be wary of the gap between what people say they will do and what they will actually do.

Tagoras suggests not relying too much on one type of feedback source. They also recommend developing minimum viable products (MVPs) that you can test and tweak based on market acceptance and feedback.

Here are some helpful questions from Tagoras to help you develop an association e-learning strategy and development process:

  • What factors drive or will drive demand for your e-learning offerings?
  • Are your offerings aligned with those demand factors? Where can you improve?
  • What is your process for determining topics, learning formats, and technology to deliver or enhance the experience?
  • Do you have a process for working with subject matter experts?
  • Is this process standardized, documented, and shared with those who need to know?
  • What are your market segments? What drives demand in each of those segments?
  • What do you know about your competition? (Don’t forget LinkedIn, colleges and universities, MOOCs, and other for-profit online learning platforms.)
  • When’s the last time you did competitive research?

Does your association have a process for setting prices for e-learning products? If you do, kudos to you because only 40% of survey participants have a pricing process.

measure association e-learning experience

Design and measure the association e-learning experience.

Tagoras asks: Do you have a good understanding of adult learning principles and instructional design? If you’re not sure, consider hiring professional instructional designers—only 59% of survey participants do. They’re the high performers—the associations that describe their e-learning programs as successful are more likely to use instructional designers, 77% versus 59%.

One pedagogy principle to remember: learning will be forgotten if it’s not reinforced periodically. Unfortunately only 34% of survey participants make an effort to repeat, reinforce, or sustain learning after participants complete an association e-learning product or service, although another 27% plan to implement that approach in the coming year.

Only 40% measure whether learning occurs as a result of participation in e-learning. 26% measure sometimes, but 9% never do. Out of those who measure sometimes, frequently, or always, 80% of them use evaluation questions that reflect learning objectives, and 57% use a post-participation assessment or follow-up. But, only 16% conduct evaluations a month or more following participation—and that’s the only method that measures real impact.

As for data and data-informed decisions: only 47% of participants integrate their LMS data with data in other platforms, such as an association management system. Only 15% always use that data to make decisions about existing and future educational products and services. 30% use that data frequently, 36% use data sometimes, and 5% never use data to inform decisions. It saddens us to hear that associations aren’t integrating their LMS with their AMS and never get the full picture of member and customer behavior.

The report also covers:

By now, you’re either feeling really good about your association’s e-learning efforts—that is, if you’re in the minority that’s doing things right. Or, you’re realizing you have far to go, but at least you’re not alone. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of all the changes you must make to develop a more effective and successful e-learning program. Just remember: take baby steps. If you’d like some guidance, we’re happy to help you figure out your next steps.

Continuing Professional Development
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