Bite-Size Learning for a Digital World 

Professional Development By: Mark Athitakis

The American Alliance of Museums is exploring the fast-changing world of digital learning. Its new "digital badging" system--a series of microcredentials for bite-size education units--may be a model that other associations will soon follow.

What does it mean to have learned something? What, exactly, qualifies as a classroom? And how should what you've learned be acknowledged, to yourself and to others?

Elizabeth Merritt spends a lot of time thinking about these questions.

Merritt is the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums that's designed to seek out new ideas to serve its membership. (She calls the Center the Alliance's "bratty younger cousin.") In the past two years she's become increasingly interested in digital credentialing—a form of online education in which the student receives a publicly visible "badge," or number of badges, for completing assignments.

That's not the same thing as a webinar: Merritt has led those for the past five years but found them poor fits for broader topics and engagement among participants. And in-person training programs can only reach about 80 people at a time. "I have been frustrated for at least a decade with how to do training if you've decided it's essential," she says. "If you've decided it's really necessary, you can't say it's OK to do it 80 people at a time."

So early this year, with the support of an ASAE Foundation Innovation Grant, CFM stepped into digital credentialing by hosting an online course on strategic foresight. The topic was attractive to Alliance members, museum leaders who need to adapt to volatile forces in their fields.

Leading Innovation

The ASAE Foundation's Innovation Grants program supports innovation exploration and development in the association community. This year, the three organizations below, along with the American Alliance of Museums, were the first grant recipients.

A Less-Stressed Helpdesk

The Colorado Nonprofit Association maintains a helpdesk for members who need advice on common nonprofit issues. But without a dedicated staffer, responses can be slow. "The questions tend to fall to the bottom of many lists of to-dos," says Director of Education and Programs Londell D. Jackson.

CNA's On-Demand Educational Toolkits are designed to help members help themselves. A website allows users to take a comprehensive organizational analysis in a particular topic area, such as advocacy, or dive into rich-media content resources on that topic.

CNA is beta-testing toolkits for three topic areas so far. Success would mean fewer helpdesk calls. It would also mean increased visibility for CNA. "Hopefully, as more people become aware of the usefulness of the tool, we'll see greater demand for and use of the tool itself," Jackson says.

Online Onsite

For the past decade travel budgets have been tight at the International Association of Diecutting and Diemaking, so CEO Cindy C. Crouse, CAE, doesn't see her members' facilities as much as she'd like. That was a key inspiration for THINK! Outside the Box. IADD assembled all the hardware necessary for recording a plant tour—tablet computer, mobile hot spot, and more—into a box and sent it to member sites. Once the tour is recorded by a member, who answers prewritten questions from IADD staff, the box goes back to IADD headquarters for refurbishing and then is sent to another member. Three boxes are in circulation.

The tours help IADD staff to understand member needs and educate members. One member, for instance, highlighted materials and processes members rarely get to see in action. "There are so many ways you can learn from what's being shown, even the storage of materials and the layout of a shop," Crouse says.

The interviews will ultimately appear on the members-only area of IADD's website. Crouse said leadership discussed putting a price tag on the videos but decided against it. Their thinking: "Let's do this for the basic good," she says. "Let's make this one of the core pieces of membership. Let's sell membership based on this."

Social Innovation

The Association of American Medical Colleges has enjoyed success with innovative ideas and products, but some have come from lucky breaks. Its Accelerate! program applies a structure to its efforts, in part by making the whole staff a part of it. For example, the association held a competition for an AAMC Innovation Fellow who would attend a program at the Mayo Center for Innovation. People used AAMC's internal social network to make a case for why they should attend and what new ideas they thought they could bring back. Six finalists were selected to make presentations that were voted on by staff. "People did all sorts of creative things—one team wrote a song, someone else made a video, one person even wrote a haiku," says William T. Mallon, senior director, strategy and innovation development.

How'd it go? As with a lot of things in the world of online learning, the answer is complicated.

New Learning, New Learners

Adult education has undergone a sea change in the past decade, from for-profit universities to peer learning to massive open online courses (MOOCs) that distribute learning globally. For associations, which often base their credibility (and revenue) on education, it can be as difficult to figure out how to leverage these new models as it is impossible to ignore them.

"One of the most important trends is how self-directed people are about their own learning," says Jonathan E. Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly, a company that develops digital badging platforms. "We're very accustomed to learning what we need to know on a completely on-demand, just-in-time way. The vast majority of the learning we actually do is not in formal settings, yet it's formal settings that produce a credential, a diploma, or a degree."

That idea runs counter to traditional association education. "Our adult learners now are reacting more from the immediate gratification of earning something," says Tracy Petrillo, CAE, chief learning officer of Educause, an association of IT professionals in higher education. Its EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative began experimenting with digital badges at its 2013 annual conference, awarding more than 1,400 in 12 categories related to participation, presenting, and community service. That allowed participants to satisfy their interest in broadcasting their accomplishments: "I think the future of the resume is the public resume," Petrillo says.

Transferring that concept to education is important but trickier, she says. "We have to look at bite-size learning, bite-size participation."

Elizabeth Merritt's course in strategic forecasting was engineered for bite-size learning. The course was split into four levels, with up to six assignments per level, and badges were offered for completed assignments. Each level (hosted on a WordPress BadgeOS site configured by LearningTimes, an online education company) opened with a video recorded by Merritt, followed by additional information, then a written assignment, which the participants who tested the program could complete at their own pace. The site is password-protected, and participants were encouraged to share thoughts in discussion forums. (The class offered two badges for different types of such participation, in fact.)

Identifying how much information to include in each lesson, how to structure the assignments, and how to judge the participant's work presented challenges. "What I learned is that I have to break down my logic about why [an answer] is right or wrong and have a very clear rubric for what I expect you to do, then for scoring it," Merritt says.

Right: scoring. The credibility of the course rests on its rigor, and the rigor is defined by what it demands of students. If the assignments involve time-consuming grading, the time it saves over in-person sessions is negligible. But Merritt sees an opportunity to leverage the Alliance's volunteer peer reviewers, who already help the organization certify museums. "If you want a different type of engagement, or you're not able to travel that much, you could be an online peer reviewer, and you could score assignments within our badging system," she says.

Merritt spent the remainder of 2013 trying out improvements with another group of "test pilots," and she'll work with the Alliance's director of education early next year to decide on next steps. One point she stresses from the experience is that, for all the appeal of online badges, online education needn't be exclusively digital. "People act as if the learning is all online," she says. "No. Instruction is online. That doesn't mean the learning has to be online. I think this could foster localized, face-to-face learning."

Different Credit

That jibes with the experience of Tracey Berg-Fulton, registrar at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and one of Merritt's test pilots. She says she has "some pretty substantial doubts" about whether a digital badging system can replace traditional learning formats. But as conversations with her fellow participants moved to Twitter and later to an in-person conference that a few of them happened to attend, the experience gained more heft.

"The activity that earned you the badge in certain sections wasn't necessarily that challenging, but the discussions it generated made that badge more worthwhile and more robust," she says.

And the format may help bring more learners into an association's fold. "There's a democratizing aspect to these types of microcredentialing," says Angie Kim, a member of the Center's Advisory Council who also took the course. "There is a latent potential in microcredentialing that's not only about your traditional student or professional development audience, but also the people who have been left out but who we should be serving, can be serving, but have always underserved."

Bite-size learning may not be the path to a major certification; Credly's Finkelstein makes a distinction between the "gold seal" that a credential represents and the "gold star" that a less formal digital badge provides. But he suggests that digital badging can strengthen an association's community by making its members' accomplishments more visible. The challenge is to decide what accomplishments are worth showing off.

"What we're really looking at here is a new form of lifelong credit," he says. "The core questions are, would somebody be pleased to receive this acknowledgement? Does it have value to them? Would most of the people who earned it want to let others know that they earned it?"

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Signs of Change."]

Hear More at Great Ideas

Want to dive deeper into association innovation? Head to the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Orlando, Florida, March 9–11, 2014. Check out these sessions to hear more from and about the ASAE Foundation Innovation Grant recipients:

  • "Make Your Association More Innovative," featuring grant recipient William T. Mallon, Association of American Medical Colleges. (Monday, March 10, 9 a.m.)
  • "Managing Innovation in Risk-Averse Environments," incorporating lessons learned from some of the Innovation Grant Program recipients. (Tuesday, March 11, 10:45 a.m.)

Read More Online

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.