Association Learning Platform Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities

BY Jeff Cobb

One of the areas we focus on in our periodic Association Learning + Technology report is which learning technology platforms trade and professional associations are using. In this post, we take a look at some of the most recent data around five platform categories:

  • Webinar and Webcast platforms
  • Learning management systems (LMSes)
  • Private online community platforms
  • Learning content management systems (LCMSes)
  • Virtual event platforms

The data comes from responses to a survey in which 203 organizations participated. In addition to discussing how these organizations are using the five types of platforms identified, we offer some thoughts on the challenges and opportunities represented by each. We also encourage you to download the full Association Learning + Technology report that serves as the basis for this post.

Webinar/Webcast Platforms

Webinars and Webcasts (which will be referred to simply as Webinars in the remainder of this post) are by the the most common form of technology-enabled learning. Recorded Webinars are offered by 91.4 percent of survey respondents currently using technology for learning while real-time Webinars are offered by 90.0 percent. So, not surprisingly, 91.8 percent report using a Webinar platform.

Challenges and Opportunities

Webinars have historically represented a significant opportunity for organizations because they are a relatively easy, low-risk way to leverage technology to deliver value to members. The saturation in the association market, however, is reflective of broader saturation and, in many instances this saturation has led to Webinar fatigue. Simply getting the attention of prospective Webinar participants in increasingly challenging, and getting them to pay can be a real uphill battle. There are a couple of broad steps organizations must take to overcome these challenges.

Learn to leverage the medium more effectively.

The ease of use that makes Webinars so attractive can also be their downfall. It’s simply too easy to recruit a subject matter expert to deliver a standard lecture. In most cases, these lectures are not particularly well designed for learning effectiveness even when they are delivered in the classroom. Take away the opportunity for the eye-to-eye contact that can support at least some modicum of responsiveness and interactivity and you often wind up with learning opportunities that are dead on arrival.

Additionally, many organizations don’t take full advantage of the fact that, not only can Webinars be recorded, they can be edited, spliced together, easily coupled with other media–possibilities that are generally more limited or difficult with traditional classroom-based delivery. These capabilities make it possible to use Webinar content in multiple ways, both as learning experiences and for effective promotion of learning experiences.

For more detail on how to leverage Webinars as a medium, see “7 ‘Must Dos’ for Maximizing Webinar Value.”

Make them part of an integrated experience.

In too many instances, Webinars offer a disjointed experience for learners. After discovering a Webinar on an organization’s Web site, prospective participants often get sent to a separate registration system controlled by the Webinar platform provider. Access to the live Webinar, when the time comes, is typically through an e-mail link that, again, sends the learner back to the Webinar platform provider. Throughout this process, there is often little opportunity for organizations to highlight related offerings or to position the Webinar effectively as part of a broader educational portfolio. Even once the recording is available, many organizations only make the link available through e-mail rather than providing a well-curated archive area on their Web site.

There are two major paths to addressing this situation. The first is simply through instituting good practices around promoting and archiving Webinars. Every Webinar is an opportunity for promoting related offerings. This should be done in the confirmation and reminder e-mails for the live Webinar, it should be done as part of the on-screen content during a Webinar, and it should be done through the organization and curation of recorded Webinars. Basically, whenever you have the opportunity to get the learner’s attention on screen, you should consider what other opportunities it makes sense to highlight and link to.

The other major path to providing an integrated experience is to move management of Webinars into a learning management system. Which brings us to the next section of this post…

Learning Management Systems (LMSes)

Image of LMS definition

Learning management system usage by associations has grown significantly over the years. In 2011, for example, 32.6 percent of survey respondents who reporting making use of learning technologies said they had implemented an LMS. By 2017, the number has more than doubled, to 66.9 percent. During that time, association LMSes have continued to evolve into sophisticated, powerful systems that can manage catalogs of courses, present learners with menus of content tailored specifically to their needs, and track learners’ progress towards new competencies, credentials, or other career-related goals.

Challenges and Opportunities

An organization’s use of an LMS signals a trend toward maturity, but these systems also bring a new level of operational complexity that the organization has to find the means to address. They can also come with significant licensing fees, and the time and cost for implementation can be substantial, particularly if integration with other systems is involved. At least in theory, tackling these complexities and costs can result in significant benefits. These include opportunities to do the following:

Create an improved user experience.

Our experience in working with more than a hundred organizations to select learning technologies is that the number-one objective for putting a first or new learning management system in place is to significantly improve the user experience. There are three key, tightly-connected ways a learning management system can do this (assuming, of course, that it is the right system for the organization and that it is properly implemented).

  • Access: The LMS can make it significantly easier for a learner to find relevant learning opportunities through search and user-friendly navigation. It can greatly facilitate e-commerce or other transactions (e.g., submission of codes) needed to enroll learners into learning activities. It can make it easier for the learner to access learning experiences once registration has occurred and to retrieve credit, certificates, and other learning records once the experience is completed.
  • Integration: Integration refers to connections between the learning management system and other systems that organizations use to communicate with and manage their relationship with stakeholders. For membership organizations, the association management system, or AMS, is usually the main system with which an LMS has to integrate, making it possible, for example, for a user to use the same ID and password that has already been established in the AMS to also access the LMS. (For much more on AMS-LMS Integration, see AMS-LMS Integration: A Primer.) Another typical point of integration, however, is with a Webinar platform. Through a fairly simple level of integration, an organization can begin listing Webinars as part of its overall educational catalog–i.e., alongside all of the other types of educational experiences it offers. It can also present the links to access both the live and the recorded Webinar within the LMS and then issue credit and certificates within the LMS as well–again, keeping all of these activities within same context as other learning experiences and thus giving the learner a much clearer view of the range of learning options provided by the organization.
  • Personalization: Once learners are accessing learning activities through an LMS, and particularly if the LMS is receiving data about the learners from an AMS (or CRM, customer relationship management system), it becomes possible to display and suggest other, related content based on what the system “knows” about the learner. This, of course, is the type of experience we have all become accustomed to as a result of Amazon and similar e-commerce sites. Learning management systems vary widely on how well they can deliver an Amazon-like experience, but even a small dose of it represents a forward leap in user experience for most organizations.

Gain access to valuable data.

Underneath everything that users and administrators see, LMSes are fundamentally databases—specifically designed for registering users for course experiences and then tracking and maintaining data related to those course experiences (for example, whether a learner has successfully completed a course). As already suggested above, access to this data can help with personalizing each individual learner’s experience. It can also provide invaluable insight into whether your learning offerings are having the desired impact as well as into what new products or services you should consider offering.

We’ll come back to this point later below because it applies across all learning platforms, not just learning management systems. As we’ll see, many organizations have tuned into the opportunity represented by data, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Explore business model diversification.

Putting an LMS into place can help support new ways to serve individual learners–for example, by making it possible (or easier) to bundle together different courses or Webinars into a single purchase or by creating subscription series through which new content can be delivered on a periodic basis.

Beyond individual learners, more organizations are (in our experience) using their LMS to provide customized “sub-portals” to institutional customers–e.g., corporations, health systems, and governmental agencies. The customers may license access to the LMS as a service in itself, as a customized “front door” into the association’s course catalog, or both.

There are other possibilities, but the general idea is that an LMS can represent a key step toward branching out from heavy dependence on traditional conference, seminar, or even online course models. For additional thoughts on how maximize the opportunities represented by learning management systems, see “5 Key Aspects of Getting a High Return on Your LMS Investment.”

Private Online Community Platforms

Community platforms provide for proprietary Web sites (versus “digital sharecropping” on Facebook or LinkedIn), where learners can engage and interact with one another, facilitators, and subject matter experts. While their popularity has been growing for years with membership organizations, it has only been recently that these organizations have started to tune in more fully to these platforms as a type of learning technology.

In the data collected for our 2016 Association Learning + Technology report, 21.7 percent of respondents currently using technology for learning said they had a learning community platform, and 20.2 percent reported plans for using such a platform in the following 12 months. Those plans have played out; in the survey for the 2017 report, 37.4 percent of respondents indicate they use a private online community platform, and 14.7 percent plan to use one in the year ahead.

Challenges and Opportunities

We expect to see significant continued growth in focused usage of community platforms for supporting learning. These platforms are particularly well suited to the goals of membership organizations, where connecting people with common interests and needs is a large part of the value proposition. It only makes sense to take things a step further to ensure that these connections result in meaningful learning.

The main challenge organizations face is developing the capacity to facilitate learning effectively in community environments. Capacity requires not only the staff or dedicated volunteers to manage a community actively, but also the skills and knowledge to support continual, high value learning within the community. With the right technology in place, along with the capacity to use it, organizations can take advantage of opportunities to do the following:

Support a more cohesive member experience.

Very often individuals engage with an organization in isolated ways. A member may attend a conference, for example, but once the conference is done, it’s done. There is no clear, ongoing connection between one event and the next or between an event and other activities of the organization.

Community platforms can help connect the dots among the many types of benefits that organizations offer–from conferences to advocacy to chapter activities–providing a context in which these benefits can be referenced, discussed, and leveraged for learning.

Facilitate social learning.

A key reason for providing the context suggested above is that it can help significantly with facilitating social learning–that is, the learning that comes from the myriad formal and informal interactions between and among an organization’s stakeholders. Effective facilitation of social learning is one of the biggest opportunities that membership organizations have right now, and we have written extensively about it in other places:

Tap a source of user-inspired content.

Communities are a great place to introduce social learning objects–ideas, actions, events that become the focus of discussion and sharing. They are also a place from which new learning ideas very often emerge as a result of interaction among community members. Quite often these ideas can be channeled into formal learning opportunities–a Webinar, a conference session. Simply put, a successful community platform initiative can result in one of the best sources of market research and learning needs assessment an organization will ever have.

Learning Content Management Systems (LCMSes)

Neither of the other platforms we asked about—virtual conference platforms and learning content management systems (LCMSes)—is used by even a quarter of respondents, and projected use for the year ahead is more modest. While we don’t expect to see widespread adoption of either of these types of platforms anytime soon, we do feel that more organizations should be considering implementation of a true learning content management system.

A learning content management system, or LCMS, provides ways to author or import learning content objects into the platform, edit them, assemble them into learning experiences, and repurpose them into other, different learning experiences.

While we asked about LMSes and LCMSes separately in our surveying for Association Learning + Technology, we should note that some LMS vendors position themselves as also covering content management. Proceed with caution when you hear this claim from an LMS vendor: a true LCMS should provide for repurposing and reuse of learning content objects, as suggested above. Ideally, these objects should conform to e-learning industry standards like SCORM or xAPI and be exportable for use in other system. There are no LMSes currently active in the association market that provide this level of LCMS capabilities natively (though we are seeing more partnerships between LMS vendors and makers of true LCMS platforms).

Challenges and Opportunities

Implementation of an LCMS can, in many cases, introduce quite a bit of new complexity into an organization’s learning business operations. As a result, it can also create capacity challenges. Nonetheless, an LCMS can create opportunities to do the following:

Better leverage subject matter expertise.

LCMSes are Web-based and support collaborative authoring. If you deal with far-flung subject matter experts, they can make it much more possible to involve those experts in the authoring and review process. Just as importantly, once subject matter expertise is captured in learning content objects in the LCMS, those objects can be readily used and reused in a variety of different ways, making it possible for you to get as much mileage out of your learning content as possible.

Expand possibilities for licensing content.

Managing your learning content in an LCMS can also make it much easier to distribute it out to other platforms–for example, member organizations that already have their own learning management system. You maintain the content in one place and can track how it is used, but licensees get the ability to present the content to their learners using the platform they choose.

Personalize the learner experience.

Because content in a LCMS can be tagged and served up in a variety of ways, the possibilities for really personalizing the learner experience–for example, with just-in-time content focused on a very specific need–expand dramatically.

Virtual Conference Platforms

Virtual conference platforms are designed to enable offering online, multi-session events. They range from more Webinar-like interfaces with presentation screens coupled with realtime chat to immersive 3D environments. These platforms rank last out of the types we asked about in our research for Association Learning + Technology—not surprising, given 64.8 percent of respondents using technology for learning say they don’t offer a virtual conference and don’t plan to in the next 12 months.

Opportunities and Challenges

Technically, you don’t have to have a specialized platform to offer a virtual conference–which is probably why widespread adoption of these platforms has been limited. We see an increasing number of organizations looking to their LMS to handle the basic elements of a virtual conference. Even using a combination of a standard Webinar platform, e-mail, and publicly-available social media platform like Twitter or Facebook can do the trick. (Along these lines, be sure to check out our Leading Learning Podcast episode on CMEpalooza.)

However you go about it, we see virtual events as one of the biggest opportunities for membership organizations–right up there with microlearning and digital credentials. The challenge for most organizations seems to be that it feels like too much of a threat to that most sacred of all sacred cows: the face-to-face conference. Beyond that, running high-quality virtual events that deliver a truly great learning experience requires new skills for most organizations. Whatever the perceived challenges, organizations need to overcome them to capitalize on these opportunities:

Reach a much greater percentage of members.

Relatively few organizations are getting more than a quarter of their members to major annual events. That leaves most members underserved–and many of those are younger members (or prospective members) who represent the future of the organization. While virtual events are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea (as ASAE research suggests, people like to learn in person when possible), they are bound to appeal to many, or at least to be seen as an acceptable alternative when face-to-face just isn’t possible.

Lead on a major social issue.

Between air travel emissions and the waste associated with the used of hotels and conventions centers, the high environmental costs of face-to-face meetings really can’t be denied. Shifting toward virtual delivery for at least some traditionally face-to-face events is a clear way to demonstrate an organization’s commitment to preserving the environment and ameliorating climate change.

For additional resources related to virtual conferences, visit our Virtual Events Resource Center.

Wrap Up: Data Again

As suggested above in the “Learning Management System (LMSes)” section above, data is a key by-product of using technology to enable and enhance learning. This is true for all of the platforms discussed here, not just LMSes. The data captured–through activities ranging from registration to course completion–can be invaluable for better understanding members and identifying new ways to provide value.

While many organizations have tuned into this opportunity, there remains significant room for improvement. Only 14.9 percent of survey respondents report always always using the data they collect in their learning technology platforms to make decisions about the current and future educational products and services they offer. Another 30.4 percent report using this data frequently, while just over a third (35.7 percent) report making use of such data only sometimes.

The data available from a single learning platform is only part of the picture, of course. To be as useful as possible, this data needs to be connected with data from other systems, such as an association management system (AMS) or customer relationship management (CRM) system. Survey responses were more promising in this area: close to half (47.1 percent) of organizations integrate (whether manually or through automation) the data they collect in their learning technology platforms with the data from other technology platforms they use. Even so, 30.0 percent don’t do any data integration, and another 9.4 percent aren’t sure.

These data points about data are, arguably, the key indicator of how far learning technology has come and how far it still has to go in the association sector. Given the high percentage of organizations that now use technology to enhance or enable learning (more than 90 percent), more integration with other systems and better usage of data for decision making will point to more strategic and more mature use of learning technologies in the sector. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on that topic.

Download the full Association Learning + Technology report >>

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