Smart Steps for Online Continuing Education

By: Brian Giuffrida

As you assess your online continuing education technology options, consider these 11 elements to research.

Bringing continuing education (CE) online is a big undertaking. The dizzying array of technological options can be daunting. Professionals can meet ongoing learning requirements at their convenience from wherever they happen to be, but taking advantage of technology often requires you to speak the language, which doesn't always translate easily for associations.

There are a variety of points to consider as you assess your online CE technology options. Below are the elements to research as you begin the process:

1. Course production. Online programs often start as live events captured on video. Some are created as webinars, specifically for online use. In either case, high production value is a must. Most course participants have been exposed to quality streaming video, so the bar has been set.

2. Online catalog. A well-designed course catalog sets the stage for the complete online CE experience. Make it easy and pleasant for your participants to shop for courses. Also make it easy to find the course catalog on your website. Look for catalogs designed specifically for education content. Everything from search and filtering to navigation and merchandising are notably different.

3. Registration. A well-designed registration process is simple and secure. Once your customers have found the courses they're interested in, sign up should be painless. Again, all registration processes are not created equal; find those that understand the registration processes of education buyers.

4. Order processing. Participants expect a shopping cart that works as well as the big online retailers. On the back end, sales transactions should be handled in a way that helps your organization manage the business of online CE.

5. Participant notification. Savvy participants expect to receive purchase notification, login information, and event reminders once they've registered. Providing real-time login information with registration confirmations requires integrating the delivery infrastructure (e.g., audio conference bridges, content delivery networks, and web conferencing) with the rest of the system.

6. Course delivery. Smooth delivery requires the proper infrastructure. A distributed content delivery network provides scalability, performance, and redundancy so programs are delivered with quality, consistency, and reliability.

7. Evaluation. Tracking and testing capabilities are not only the mark of a professional online CE program but also a necessity if you provide accredited content.

8. Certification. Once a licensing body determines the criteria for certification, you will need to deploy tools that prove completion and competency. Methods used by CE management systems include: time tracking, polling, online affidavits, and embedded participation codes.

9. Reporting. From attendance to test results to revenue reports, managing an online CE program requires accurate, detailed input. An automated reporting system is critical for a well-managed program.

10. Self-service. Providing a mechanism for self-service is critical for a scalable CE program. End users must be able to easily launch or download programs, complete tests and evaluations, and obtain certificates and transaction receipts—without help. This will help ensure that your organization isn't overwhelmed by customer support requirements.

11. Customer support. As with any online undertaking, online CE invites a range of potential problems that can require customer support. Everything from "I'm not comfortable using a credit card online" to "my PC audio doesn't work," will require support resources.

Focusing on these 11 elements and how they are to be accomplished will help your organization assess the needs of your members. Is that all there is? No. But it's a big head start.

There are best practices for online education catalogs and standards for registration processing and course purchasing. Look to associations with successful online CE programs for the former and major online retailers for the latter; they set the bar for online shopping. Today's streaming technology is very sophisticated, so aim to create an experience that includes plenty of download speed and minimum disruption. If you are dealing with accredited content, the way you handle testing and certification will be critical. Of course, good reporting and ongoing management tools will make your life much easier—and help you expand your program.

Brian Giuffrida is the vice president of corporate strategy for InReach. Email: [email protected]