Exploring the Decision to Learn

By: Lillie R. Albert and Monica Dignam

A new survey from ASAE & The Center shows that learning programs can have a profound effect on the sense of affiliation that members feel toward an association.

How do association members choose to learn, and what effect does their relationship with an association have on their interest in learning? Which type of learner feels most invested in his or her association? And how does that feeling of investment affect the decision to select education offerings, be it from associations, consultants, for-profit vendors, universities—or any of the myriad entities competing for members' time, attention, and share of continuing-education dollars?

Answering those questions—and many others—is the goal of The Decision to Learn, a study of 7,848 association members whose names were provided by 12 cosponsoring associations. In general, the respondents are highly educated (approximately half had a master's degree or higher) and are employed individuals who are members of more than one association. They are active association learners: Virtually all respondents (98 percent) reported having at least one professional education learning experience in the last year, and most respondents (56.5 percent) have had at least one learning experience with the association that contributed their name (i.e., the association cosponsor).

A sense of affiliation is a more important factor when it comes to learning through associations than through other providers.

They're also motivated to pursue those experiences for reasons beyond keeping a certification or license. Respondents were more strongly motivated to learn to keep up to date professionally or increase their competence at their job. To put it another way: They're learning because they want to, not because they have to. So in many cases, education experiences are functions of the closeness of the tie between a member and her association. How does that sense of affiliation play out in the classroom, be it a physical or virtual one? Let's take a look.

A Sense of Affiliation

Two survey questions were designed to gain insight into respondents' sense of affiliation with the cosponsoring association:

  1. Respondents were asked, "Would you say that you consider [cosponsor] your primary professional affiliation, or does another association fill that role for you?" (See Figure 1.)
  2. They were also asked to gauge their likelihood of recommending the cosponsor's learning programs to others, based on a five-point scale with five meaning "very likely." (See Figure 2.)

Figure 1: Primary Professional Affiliation of Respondent

Cosponsor association is primary:


No association is primary:


Another association is primary:


Figure 2: Likelihood Respondent Would Recommend a Cosponsor's Learning Program

5=Very Likely:








1=Very Unlikely:


Respondents with strong feelings of affiliation with the cosponsoring association are more likely to respond to any cosponsor survey, so it cannot be said that 63 percent of all members consider the cosponsoring association to which they belong their "primary" affiliation. But separating the groups helps isolate the views and opinions of the respondents who do not consider the cosponsor to be their primary affiliation—the nearly 20 percent who report no primary affiliation, and the 17 percent who say another association is their primary one.

These distinctions are important, because a member's sense of affiliation with the cosponsoring association is a stronger measure than demographics (gender, generation, level of education, or world location) in predicting participation in learning programs offered by their associations. Those who identified the cosponsor as their primary affiliation were significantly more likely to report having participated in at least one cosponsor-offered learning program at any level in the past year: 66 percent, compared to just 41 percent of those who said another association was primary, and approximately 40 percent who claimed no primary association.

Members of those latter two categories are more likely to participate in learning programs from an association that isn't a cosponsor. Just as strong affiliation helps the cosponsor, members who profess strong affiliation with others prefer the other association's offerings. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3: Participation in Education Program Last Year Provided by an Association Other Than Cosponsor

Cosponsor is primary association:


No association is primary:


Another association is primary:


A sense of affiliation is a more important factor when it comes to learning through associations than through other providers. For instance, more than a third of respondents in all three groups reported pursuing professional education offered through consultants, and about one in five of each group attended an education event provided by a college or university.

How Learners Choose to Learn (or Don't)

Regardless of affiliation, classroom and other face-to-face learning is preferred over distance learning. Moreover, whether or not members consider an organization to be their primary affiliation, they prioritized 12 learning preferences in roughly the same order. The preferred education format is in person, led by an instructor or presenter but not at a conference, tradeshow, or convention. Distance-learning methods consistently occupy the lowest ranks of the list. But low preference for distance learning does not necessarily mean nonuse. In fact, more than half of all respondents (51.5 percent) report having participated in both in-person and distance learning in the last year—a higher proportion than those who participate in only in-person learning. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4: Type of Learning Last Year

In person and distance:


In person only:


Distance only:


No learning:


It may be tempting to argue that distance learning is unpopular because people feel ill at ease with the online tools required for it. But overall, survey respondents did not consider "lack of comfort or familiarity with technology for distance learning" a barrier to entry. In fact, the survey shows that no single obstacle is overwhelming in any category of learning; except for "Long distance travel is usually required for topics that interest me," no obstacle was rated over three on the five-point scale. (For more on making distance learning work, see sidebar.)

Affiliation is a factor in how important a barrier is to an association member, however. Those who report that no association is primary rate the barrier "I cannot afford to pay for professional development from my own funds" significantly higher than either of the other two groups. This suggests that those who don't feel a strong affiliation with any association may be less likely to expect that their employer will pay for their participation in professional-development programs. These individuals participate in learning programs at about the same incidence of others and spend about the same amount of money on professional education (an average of $1,650). So even if they don't feel a strong affiliation with any association and are more concerned about paying out of their own pockets, they are still a viable market for association learning programs.

The Decision to Learn Cosponsors
  • American Association of Orthodontists
  • American College of Healthcare Executives
  • American Library Association
  • ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society
  • IEEE
  • Institute of Real Estate Management
  • National Association of College and
    University Business Officers
  • Ohio Society of CPAs
  • Oncology Nursing Society
  • Project Management Institute

Final Exam

While strong perceived affiliation with one's association is a very relevant indicator of participation in an association's learning offerings, it does not significantly affect either format preferences or format selection. How you feel about an association can influence how interested you are in its education offerings, but it doesn't translate to a greater or lesser preference for in-person, distance, or other types of learning.

If there's any common thread aside from affiliation when it comes to learning, it's that it is imperative for organizations to provide better and richer education resources to its members. Though face-to face learning is a major preference, it is clear adult learners will participate in distance-learning formats as well. The current abundance of research and experimentation into distance learning by learning providers of all types, from the smallest association to graduate-level academic programs, suggests we are in a period of significant innovation as it applies how learning is delivered. Distance-learning offerings on topics that are easily applied to current problems and needs, are personalized and adapted to the individual learner's learning style, and readily available and cost-effective will continue to grow.

Lillie R. Albert, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Boston College Lynch School of Education. Monica Dignam is vice president of research for ASAE & The Center. Email: [email protected]

Findings from The Decision to Learn will be presented at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo on Sunday, August 22. Copies of The Decision to Learn will also be available for sale at the Annual Meeting Bookstore.

How One Association Makes Distance Learning Work (Online Extra: Extended Q&A)

Since 2007 the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) has been providing e-learning opportunities for its members in multiple formats. JoAnn W. Klinedinst, CPHIMS, PMP, FHIMSS, vice president of professional development at HIMSS, answered questions from Associations Now about its efforts:

How did HIMSS decide to pursue an online distance learning program?

Because of the respect in the industry for HIMSS' exceptional educational content, we decided that we would make alternative sources available for that education. Prior to distance education, the only way to experience a HIMSS education event was to go attend a live event.

By recording, capturing, and digitally archiving those the education sessions, we afforded an opportunity for our members and others to gain that experience. During this time, HIMSS also adopted a distance education strategy that included a learning management system where we would not only deliver digitally archived sessions but we could also create courses based on the principles of adult education for our members.

When did HIMSS start creating the recording archives, and then when did it start implementing the LMS system that you mentioned?

The HIMSS eLearning Academy, powered by www.learn.com, went live July 1st, 2009. We did have an LMS prior to that but it was not one that functioned in the manner that we needed it to function. Prior to that, we've been digitally recording and archiving cpntent , since 2007.

Who is the audience is or HIMSS' distance learning programs? Are they distinct from those who participate in the in-person programs?

The audience is very similar to our in-person conferences, however, we do see additional attendees at the virtual conference who do not have an opportunity to attend our in-person conferences. Further, because there are over 300 educational sessions that are available at our in-person conference, and we have typically 20 22 tracks running education simultaneously. So the content that's digitally archived allows that HIMSS attendee who did not get to a session that ran concurrently with another session that he or she attended in a live manner.

So a good proportion of the time the people pursuing distance learning are people who do actually attend events. It's just a function of overlapping sessions.

That's correct. Now, we also have a virtual conference—an exhibition offering that we do three times a year—and we find those folks that attend that conference are different. Typically those that attend the virtual conference and exhibition are the folks that do not necessarily have an opportunity to go to the HIMSS conference. At the HIMSS conference we see CIOs, CMIOs [chief medical information officers], directors, nurses, physicians and others. With our virtual conference we find that folks who are in a support role tend to take advantage of that particular offering more so than attending HIMSS.

Are there types of education programs that are better suited for distance learning than others?

Programs featuring The best practices and the case studies are real good examples, and with our distance learning education and the courses that we do create, we have a fair amount of success building exercises into those educational offerings that further validate the learner's understanding of the content. HIMSS has not yet conducted virtual instructor-led training, but it is something that we are currently developing for release later this year.

Is there a difference in who does the teaching in a virtual environment?  Does it matter who is actually giving the presentation?

Absolutely. Our members welcome subject-matter experts who have experience in their areas of expertise. For example, Sue Houston, MBA, RN, BC, PMP, Chief of the Project Management Office of the Department of Clinical Research Informatics (DCRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an author of one of our courses that's titled Project Management Essentials for Healthcare Informatics. Her background, experience, and credentials are So those three elements make her a very credible instructor, and we always look for those types of things to ensure that the credibility is there.

So when it comes to distance learning the learners prefer to hear their peers?

Experienced peers in subject matter content, yes.

Are there any roadblocks that prevent people from participating in the distance learning programs? Is price a factor, are technological issues a factor?

We certainly don't have any technological factors that we're aware of. That was one of the reasons we move from our previous vendor, where there were multiple issues that impeded our progress.  We experience none of that now. From a pricing perspective, through the Decision to Learn project we found that our pricing was just about right, based on what we offer. So we don't experience either of those barriers.

HIMSS does international training as well. Are there any distinctions between learning methods or learning styles for people from different countries?

Not that I'm aware of. We know that folks with an international perspective really are keen on certificates of completion, and our systems are designed to provide that. We also know with our certification that we offer, which is the CPHIMS, it's the Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems, that our content actually, for those that need renewal credits, provides credit towards renewal of their credentials, the content does qualify for that. So from an international perspective, it's certainly easy for someone in Asia to sign on to the HIMSS eLearning Academy and actually listen to a session that was delivered at our North America conference and vice versa, as well as taking the courses that we do offer.

You have different types of participants that you invite to take part in the distance learning programs, and one is a non-member track. Does distance learning play a strong role in terms of recruiting new members of the organization?

Yes. Certainly with the emphasis on achieving meaningful use and the incentives that have been placed through the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009] regulations, we find that there are folks that want to align with HIMSS because of the many tools, resources, and professional development opportunities that we can provide to healthcare information technology professionals. 

Is there anything more about HIMSS's distance learning programs you'd like to add?

Our distance education programs extend the educational programming that we do offer, so that folks who cannot leave their worksite to go to attend a conference have an alternative method for still participating. It certainly does not take the place and does not replace networking that occurs at conferences, but it's a good alternative to continuing that professional development for our members.

Online Extra: Decision to Learn at Annual Meeting & Expo

ASAE & The Center's Director of Learning Mark Milroy talks about The Decision to Learn, the latest book being released in ASAE & The Center's Decision to... series. The book will be available at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Exposition in Los Angeles August 21-24.