What's Next in Association Learning?

What's Next Association Learning Associations Now November/December 2017 Issue By: Allison Torres Burtka

Do your education offerings deliver what you want them to? If you’re looking to reinvigorate your professional development program, current trends suggest that opportunities lie in assessing what you’re trying to accomplish, harnessing data, rethinking content and delivery, and trying some unconventional approaches.

The world of association learning is changing, with new types of content being delivered in new formats. But what are learners actually getting out of them?

While the traditional lecture format is familiar, it allows only surface learning, experts say. And associations can do better.

“We have a social construct today that if you attend a session, whether it’s online or face to face, you can check that box off and mark it as ‘done,’” says Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. “We’ve trained ourselves to think we’ve learned something. Well, the research shows we haven’t really learned anything.”

So as a new year approaches, how can associations refresh and improve their education programs? To gain some perspective on a rapidly changing field, Associations Now talked to several experts, who identified three trends in association learning that bear watching, and acting on, in 2018.

Evidence-Based Education

Scientific research on how people learn suggests that deeper and more interactive learning experiences benefit participants. “What we know from evidence-based education is that the deeper the learning, the more likely the learner is actually going to apply it and use it,” Hurt says.

This means using the brain’s executive functions, in the frontal lobe—including estimation, judgment, analysis, evaluation, and elaboration. “If you explore the content mentally, you actually probe the connections in your brain, and it causes more retention of the learning,” he says.

As a learner, you can’t just absorb someone else’s knowledge, he explains. The only way you can make it your own is to build your own mental framework “and figure out: What does this mean to me? How does it connect to my experience? How am I going to act on it?”

“The more we can use higher-order thinking, the better our brains are at agility, flexibility, innovation, seeing things differently, and adapting,” Hurt says. Research at the Center for BrainHealth and elsewhere has shown that this type of thinking—frontal lobe integrated reasoning, not rote memorization—improves brain health. And if association leaders do it, the benefits extend to organizational health.

What kinds of programs make such higher-order learning possible? Programs can be designed to deliver it in a variety of ways, but they have several characteristics in common:

Transformational, not transactionalSimply delivering information-based presentations is transactional—and it can cause cognitive overload, says Tracy King, MA, CAE, CEO and chief learning strategist at InspirEd. People simply can’t absorb all the material from a long lecture, much less figure out how to apply it.

“People are looking for transformational learning experiences, not transactional learning experiences,” Hurt says. Getting information from a speaker typically involves the novelty-seeking part of the brain, so it may deliver a temporary rush, he says. But, because it doesn’t involve the frontal lobe, participants rarely understand that information enough to use it.

Focus on competence. Learning programs should aim to increase competence, not deliver information, King says. “One of the biggest trends is competency-based learning. Academia knows it, corporations are clamoring for it, and our constituencies want it.”

Typically, “a subject-matter expert tells the association what topic is important and develops an 80-slide presentation full of words,” she says. “The learning objectives have to do more with what they want to talk about than the type of skills that those sitting in the audience need to master the material.”

A shift toward competence “means we go deeper, spend time talking about how to apply the content, and allow time for reflection—personalizing next steps,” so that learners make the content their own, she says.

More interactivity. Greater interaction enhances learning. Some associations are spending half or more of their sessions having participants do something with the content, Hurt says.

“Encourage talking and elaboration and exploratory dialogue,” he suggests. Small groups of two or three are ideal. The presenter can spend time addressing attendees’ questions and concerns, and in an online session, you can allow text chatting.

SmithBucklin’s Circuit report for 2017 identified unconventional education as one important trend, which includes formalized peer-to-peer education. Still, participants are used to hearing from experts. “There will be some pushback from people who don’t want to think or work at learning,” Hurt says. But ultimately, “it’s a value-add in creating a unique experience that will attract customers.”

Education Strategy

According to Association Learning + Technology 2017, a report by Tagoras, more than half (57 percent) of the organizations surveyed did not have a formal, documented strategy for their learning and education business.

Learning programs should be built on sound strategy and learning priorities, King says. But associations typically start with channels—such as an annual conference or a webinar series—and then decide on content and speakers to fill them. Stepping back and considering objectives is a better approach.

For example, at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “it’s important to educate our audiologists and speech-language pathologists, but what’s even more important than that is that the education they are learning from us is making positive outcomes on their students, patients, and clients,” says ASHA Professional Development Director Chris Urena. “Otherwise, it’s not making the intended impact.”

Associations should have “a strategy for education that connects to the strategy of the organization and takes into account a portfolio perspective,” King says. This strategy should determine “how each program will contribute to meeting the stated needs of the organization’s target audiences,” as well as “align resources with measurable objectives, allowing program teams to coordinate versus compete.”

Elements of a robust learning strategy include:

Goal-focused learning design. Learning programs should be designed based on both how people learn and the association’s content priorities. For example, “if ethics is a content priority, we can define what level of competency we intend to achieve, and all content channels can strive toward that goal,” King says.

Along with ethics content at the annual conference, an association could offer a related webinar, article, e-learning course, podcast series, and “micro content” through its chapters—before and after the conference—so that the association keeps touching on the topic. Associations “need to move away from the event-based model if we intend to support full-cycle learning,” King says.

This more holistic approach requires coordination among different teams. Associations aren’t set up that way—they’re divided into various “program silos”—but “we have the tools in our arsenal to do this,” she says. “It just requires some shifting of thought and coordination in how we funnel resources.”

Multiple formats and channels. Mobile and “micro” learning are on the rise, according to the Tagoras report. Virtual or shorter program options can complement longer, more traditional formats and often allow more participant interaction.

“There’s a limit to how much information a person’s brain can absorb and retain during a certain period,” Urena says, so it’s worth exploring the efficacy of different learning models. “Generally speaking, younger crowds look at education, networking, and engagement differently than their senior counterparts.”

Incorporating the right mix might mean striking a balance between programs that are long enough for people to use higher-order thinking and short enough to avoid information overload.

Personalized learning. Education is becoming more personalized and self-directed, as associations offer a growing list of options for participants to choose from. Or they may offer active guidance and curation, Hurt says. A personalized learning journey pairs a learner with a team of experts who “help individuals navigate the inventory maze of learning opportunities to select those that are personally suited for the individual’s goals, aspirations, and strengths,” he says. “When the focus is changed to my personal learning goals or aspirations and where I want to go professionally, I’m automatically motivated, and I’m more likely to engage in frontal-lobe thinking.”

Decisive Data

Associations often have plenty of data but don’t use it to guide their learning strategy. “There is so much data right now, many associations are making guesses—educated guesses—on what they’re going to develop for the ensuing year,” says Urena.

The Tagoras report found that, of organizations that use technology for learning, only 14.9 percent always use the data they collect in their learning technology platforms to make decisions about educational products and services, 30.4 percent frequently do, 35.7 percent sometimes do, and 4.8 percent never do.

Instead, many associations involve staff and engage volunteers to make suggestions about education—but those opinions might not be backed by data. “If you can create a disciplined process that relies on data, and then socialize that process within your organization, you’re more inclined to stay on target with your objectives,” Urena says.

Data can inform decisions such as where to hold an in-person conference. Associations typically consider certain factors, but they can harness more data, “such as prospective attendee density heat maps, segmentation and propensity models, and average driving thresholds,” Urena says. ASHA has built a data visualization tool that it uses to make sense of the contributing factors affecting attendance. “It helps us avoid certain locations that would result in low attendance and low revenue,” he says.

Over the long term, some trends stick and others fade, but the desire to learn is constant, and associations will always be called on to satisfy it. Learners “invest in education because of the promise of change it brings,” King says.

Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan.