Associations’ Online Learning Resolutions for 2016

Tobin Conley | 01.08.16
Topics: Everything Else

As the new year begins and we all turn our attention back to work, it may be a good time to take a closer look at how your organization approaches its online learning (a.k.a. e-learning or eLearning, as I like to call it) offerings.

Despite the (often significant) impact of online educational programs on an association’s mission, member value, and non-dues revenue, such efforts are often underfunded and understaffed. Business proceeds as usual; after all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

However, association professional development programs are under increasingly acute threats from external competition, including other nonprofit groups and commercial concerns. Given the increased interest in massive open online courses (MOOCs), associations may need to ‘up the ante’ in order to justify the cost of online offerings. Furthermore, if Lynda, the online education company that was bought last year by LinkedIn, ever turns its light on the association world, complacency will give way to concern.

As we start 2016, I’d like to bring three eLearning issues to your attention.

#1 Don’t expect tools to solve problems.

People fall in love (lust?) with platforms and other bright, shiny objects, but it’s the content that matters most. Yes, having the best eLearning technology for your members’ and your organization’s needs is important. On the front end, you must provide a good user (learner) experience. And on the back end, your eLearning platform should have an intuitive administrator’s dashboard and integrate with your association management system (AMS). But if your content is ultimately without value, no one will come back for more.

15154392076_02f1da2718_o.png#2 Get to know ADDIE.

What do your members need to learn to advance their careers and grow their business in the next few years? What type of learning experience will best deliver that content? Once you decide, turn your attention to ADDIE.

ADDIE is an instructional design model that’s especially useful for eLearning. Its phases are Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. However, many associations miss one or more of these steps, or they cycle through all five and then stop instead of treating instructional design as a cyclical process. I detail the five phases of ADDIE at the end of this post.

#3 Consider a hybrid eLearning delivery model.

It’s important to note: you can extend your reach with alternate approaches to your online offerings.

For instance, a number of trade associations are now providing the opportunity for member companies to have administrative access to professional development programs. Member companies identify a primary point of contact (education coordinator) who is given access to a portal or dashboard where they can purchase coupons/codes for a specific number of courses. They can then assign those courses to employees and track their progress.

Another approach involves making additional content—other than that created by the association—available to learners. The key here is to determine the needs of learners and find creative ways to deliver the goods. (Just make sure you follow good copyright compliance practice with any content that you offer.)

Not-so-grumpy cat sez…

While no one can tell exactly what 2016 will bring, there are a few things that are certain: associations will face stiff competition for the attention of learners, which will demand concerted focus—and perhaps increased resources—in terms of how online course offerings are designed, delivered, and assessed. By bringing a new level of intentionality to your programs, you can help assure that it will in fact be a very happy new year.

The 5 phases of ADDIE


Using focus groups and surveys, identify your audiences, as well as how you can create meaningful learning objectives. The analysis phase helps answer the Who, What, Where, and When of your planned programs and creates the solid foundation from which to proceed in creating them.


You can do much better than delivering content via a sage-on-the-stage (or screen) accompanied by PowerPoint.

In order to succeed, you must first understand the learning preferences, habits, and needs of your audiences and how you can best deliver content to them. For example, as the success of MOOCs such as Coursera and edX show, many busy professionals prefer bite-sized learning.

The bottom line here is that it takes more than just putting PDFs or presentations online to create a compelling learning experience. Invest in instructional designers who understand how to develop effective learning experiences for adults of the 21st century.


Here’s where the rubber meets the road, and courses are actually put into your learning management system (LMS). This is also where careful attention should be paid to integration requirements with other mission-critical systems. In general, it typically pays to let each of your systems play to its strengths in order to avoid unnecessary customization.

For instance, unless there’s a very good reason to the contrary, the AMS should be the transactional engine, and the LMS the instructional engine. Think about where each type of data lives as well as how (or whether it should be) pushed and pulled between systems. Don’t over-customize. Also, don’t forget to thoroughly test-drive the results: iterative testing ensures that your platforms will play nicely together.

Communication is critical during the Development phase. A business analyst can translate your goals and needs so developers deliver a product that meets your expectations.


Be aware of unusual but likely scenarios. For example, if you have users in China, test access to your platform or prepare to have servers in China. In the ASAE publication, Achieving Global Growth: Establishing & Maintaining Global Markets, an entire section is dedicated to working in China and highlights the opportunities—and potential pitfalls—of expanding into that market.


Throughout the process, you should engage in formative evaluation—review and revision at each stage of course creation. You’ll want to know whether your efforts are successful, and thus must also engage in summative assessments as well. These include the more typical course evaluation forms as well as a variety of other feedback mechanisms. Evaluation drives further Analysis, and the ADDIE cycle continues.


Flickr photo by Ryan Tracey

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