Build an E-Learning Center in 120 Days
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, August 2009 , Feature
|Summary: Launch an e-learning center in 120 days? With the right mix of determination and cooperation, one association finds it's no problem at all. (Titled "Learning, on the Run" in the print edition.)|
Develop and launch an e-learning center. In 120 days.
Challenging? Definitely. Doable? Well, sure. Looking back on it now, that is.
That's what the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) did. And not just some half-baked, slap-it-up-on-the-web, check-it-off experiment.
No, this is a dynamic online learning center, filled with smart, timely content. A professional-development goldmine.
How'd they do it? Read on and see for yourself.
Speaking of Challenges
|How'd They Do It?|
Launch an e-learning center in 120 days? What are you, nuts?
As the Society for Gynecologic Oncology has proven, it's certainly doable to conceptualize and launch an online learning center in four short months.
So, how'd they get there? According to SGO staff, a great deal of time was spent discussing the importance, usability, and functionality of the e-learning center with the chair and co-chair of the education committee, as well as with committee members.
Following is a timeline of actions:
February to April
"I semi-jokingly said to staff, 'You have 120 days to pull this off,'" recalls Mary Eiken, SGO executive director. "But then I began to see others doing it and thought, 'Why can't we?'"
Why not, indeed?
SGO's goal was to create a library of electronic, on-demand educational programming that would allow visitors to gain additional training and updates on scientific trials, information on new treatment methods and options, and knowledge about preventative care. Establishing a tool that was web based would allow members—and other healthcare professionals—to benefit from critically important information.
Following SGO's Annual Meeting on Women's Cancer, a comprehensive, four-day affair that examines the management of treatment of women with reproductive cancers, the association found itself knee deep in rich content from speaker sessions, symposia, and other onsite learning opportunities. The timing was perfect, thought Eiken.
"Let's make this happen," she said.
Sure enough, they pulled it off.
As soon as staff returned from the conference, they began combing through content, asking themselves what would be appropriate for an e-learning environment, what could stay, and what would be better left out.
"We have about 2,000 people in attendance at our annual conference," says Eiken, "and it's gotten to the point where, with parallel sessions, symposia, and so forth, it's really hard to attend everything."
For SGO members, the new e-learning center would put forth two benefits. Many of those who attend the conference want to experience the content all over again once they get back home, says Eiken. And for those who are unable to attend the conference, the e-learning center, where participants can download session documents, slides, presentations, and other resources, is the next best thing to being there.
"The timing of our largest educational offering," says Susan Morris, SGO's director of marketing and communications, "and the availability of that vast amount of educational content made us want to exploit it in a way that would allow us to not only offer that program, but launch the e-learning center concept as well."
Currently, the e-learning center houses a webcast developed from the association's 40th annual meeting. The SGO Education Committee is in the process of identifying new programming topics and formats and plans to formalize these programs and get started developing them this fall.
Members' response to date? It's been fair, admits Morris, but she chalks that up to the fact that the center doesn't yet offer continuing medical education credits. This, she says, will be the real value in offering educational programming in a manner that is flexible and adaptable to physicians'—and their staffs'—schedules.
The biggest challenge an organization faces when it moves rapidly to develop and launch a comprehensive e-learning center? Hands down: Glossing over members' needs.
"First and foremost," says Jeff Cobb, a distance-learning speaker and consultant, "take the time to really understand the member needs—including latent needs—that a well-designed e-learning initiative can address. Beyond the content, how can you make a member's management of her own ongoing professional development and credentials easier?"
For SGO, this was anything but a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision.
"We had access to data from membership surveys and post-meeting surveys," says SGO's Morris, "as well as the growing prevalence of e-learning in the medical education arena that online, on-demand educational programming would be welcomed and is something that our members were familiar and comfortable with."
Establishing a tool that was web based would allow members—and other healthcare professionals—to benefit from critically important information.
SGO staff and volunteer decision makers also knew that their members, as leaders of a "care" team, were interested in broadening their knowledge base as professionals. "The ability to extend our educational programming to include them in a format that doesn't disrupt office or staffing schedules is a great benefit for our membership," says Morris.
But what often happens, regardless of the timeline, says Cobb, is that organizations fall back on assumptions that may or may not be accurate about what their members want. This can lead to lower-than-anticipated adoption rates, offerings that are not easily modified or scaled, and a range of other issues.
"Mainly, there is a lot of information to be gathered and a lot of strategic and tactical choices to be made," Cobb says. "Needless to say, moving quickly to address questions such as, 'How ready is our audience for e-learning?' and, 'What type of delivery platform do we need?' can be daunting."
According to Columbia University's Thomas Herzog, MD, the chair of SGO's education committee, the organization recognized the need "to get a program out there in a nontraditional setting."
With full support from Eiken, SGO staff behind the idea, and a number of enthusiastic members on the education committee, says Herzog, "We had identified the perfect storm to move on such an initiative. The idea really didn't have much opposition. Most people thought it was a great idea."
"Education is a huge component of our strategic plan," agrees Eiken. "Leadership had the insight to move toward an e-learning environment."
Which brings us to Cobb's next caveat: Make sure leadership is truly on board and understands both the opportunities and the challenges.
"I talked to an association education director recently," says Cobb, "who took the time to call up each member of her organization's board and get them to register for, participate in, and report back on at least one e-learning program. Not every director will be able to pull this off, but I'd certainly advocate trying."
Need for Speed
While heeding the warning to avoid moving at breakneck speed is certainly wise, the pressure to work through these issues quickly can be a good thing if leaders of the initiative are focused and effective. Urgency is a major factor in driving change, and a good deal of change management often accompanies new e-learning initiatives.
"A short timeline and a strong sense of urgency can help organizations avoid the 'paralysis by analysis' that impacts so many e-learning initiatives," says Cobb.
The bottom line, says Cobb, is if the organization can harness the sense of urgency that comes with a short timeline and use it to focus the efforts of its stakeholders, the benefits can be substantial.
For SGO, the call to act quickly had to be tempered with an accessible pricing structure. In addition, the association was careful not to cannibalize its live learning events, such as its annual meeting, with online educational opportunities.
"We had to make sure that it met market standards," says Morris, "and encourage purchase without shrinking on our onsite attendance."
"There's a tremendous value of going to live events: networking, camaraderie, and so forth," agrees Herzog. "The question we had to ask ourselves was, 'Can the e-learning center get so good that people will stop going to the live meetings?' Striking that balance was our biggest challenge."
For now, says Morris, SGO committees are considering a variety of pricing options, everything from an annual subscription for members and nonmembers to group licenses to individual per-program fees. The decision, based upon what best meets members' needs—and the center's needs, as far as maintenance, production, and programming—will be determined once the additional programs and format have been finalized.
Cobb says the balance between live and online can absolutely happen and that, for most organizations, the concern over cannibalizing attendance at live meetings is a red herring.
"In the first place, if the lack of online alternatives is the only thing sustaining attendance levels at your place-based educational events, the organization has deeper issues that need to be addressed," he says.
There are very few organizations that are already reaching everyone they could be reaching with their education offerings. In fact, most are only reaching a relatively small percentage.
Beyond that, e-learning, if done well, can do more to "expand the pie" for an organization's educational offerings than to cut additional slices from the current pie. Members who value face-to-face meetings, says Cobb, will continue to attend them, although they may also take advantage of online alternatives from time to time.
And members, as well as nonmembers, who find value in online offerings may be attracted to onsite meetings they would not otherwise have attended.
"You may even attract some new members along the way," says Cobb, suggesting that organizations generally overlook the potential of e-learning as a marketing tool.
Price Is Right
The other issue that Herzog and his colleagues raise, that of setting an effective pricing structure, can be more complex, as it relates to the perceived value of the e-learning offerings.
"Many organizations, I find, assume that members will not be willing to pay the same price for an e-learning course that offers essentially the same content and the same amount of credit as a similar face-to-face offering," says Cobb.
Implicit in this assumption, he says, is the idea that the value of e-learning is less than that of similar face-to-face offerings.
But why? Is the quality of the educational experience lower? It certainly doesn't have to be, he suggests, if the e-learning is designed well.
"If your e-learning really is an inferior product, then fine, charge less for it," Cobb says. "But I don't think most organizations want to be in that position."
The bottom line, says Cobb, is that there are very few organizations that are already reaching everyone they could be reaching with their education offerings. In fact, most are only reaching a relatively small percentage.
"E-learning should expand an organization's overall educational reach, whatever its impact on face-to-face events," he says. "And presumably, providing the education members want, how and where they want it, is a goal that aligns with the mission of most organizations."
In SGO's case, it was just what the doctor ordered.
Douglas Vaira is a freelance writer living in Charles Town, West Virginia. Email: email@example.com
|Rate this item:||Comments:|
James Parker, August 28, 2009
This is an excellent article and one that should be read by every meeting planner. Digitell has been building these e-learning centers for associations for over 8 years and every single one of our clients are thrilled with the results. Online education is not cannibalizing their onsite attendance, and in fact, it is exactly the answer to many of the declining attendance issues associations are dealing with. one of our clients is now offering access to the conference learning center as a substitute for attending and they are receiving fantastic results and engaging more people with their education than ever before.
Jeff's comments are exactly correct. Associations should be providing alternatives to their members and developing an online library of all of their educational sessions should only be the beginning. Add to it, Hybrid sessions that run live and virtual simultaneously, and watch your attendance increase every time you offer it. Offer free sessions once a month to your members and then offer additional sessions at a reasonable price and you will see increased revenues within months. The data is out there and it is overwhelmingly positive. Convincing the Board of your organization is another task and one that should be addressed immediately. This is definitely in the category of "You Snooze, You Lose!"
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