Association Learning Technology Trends: Getting Beyond the Buzzwords

BY Celisa Steele

Data on emerging learning formats, like microlearning

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), flipped classes, gamified learning, digital badges and microcredentials, and microlearning—we’ve been hearing about these buzzwords for years now.

But are they stuck at buzzword status, or have they crossed over into bona fide trends among associations? That’s a question we explored in the Association Learning + Technology 2017 report, based on an online survey of membership organizations that asked, among many others things, about these five emerging types of learning.

Microlearning Could Go Mainstream Next Year

Of the five emerging types of learning, microlearning shows the highest rate of adoption but is still offered by under a third of the survey respondents using technology for learning (30.1 percent).

That figure, however, is noticeably higher than the 18.1 percent who reported using microlearning in the survey behind the 2016 version of Association Learning + Technology.

Additionally, over a third (36.1 percent) of the 2017 respondents have plans for microlearning in the coming year. If that adoption of microlearning pans out, we could see a majority of membership organizations offering at least some bite-size learning by the end of next year.

What constitutes microlearning is up for debate (and the online survey behind Association Learning + Technology 2017 didn’t include a definition of microlearning or any of the emerging types of learning, though the report includes a primer on all five).

For some organizations, microlearning might be a predetermined length—like 10-minute CPE for Ohio’s certified public accountants. For others, microlearning may be shorter or longer than 10 minutes. Or the definition may vary depending on the offering.

What everyone can agree on is that microlearning focuses on experiences shorter than “typical” educational offerings. And in today’s fast-paced world, microlearning offers a manageable way for learners to stay on top of critical changes and new skills and information.

(For a more thorough overview and examples of microlearning for professional development, check out our “Leveraging Microlearning for Professional Development and Continuing Education” post.)

Microcredentials May Ride in on Microlearning’s Coattails

Digital badges and microcredentials, offered by 14.8 percent of the 2017 survey respondents, rank as the second most popular of the five emerging types. Plans for the coming year show growing interest—a full quarter (25.3 percent) of respondents said their organizations will do something with digital badges or microcredentials in the next 12 months.

As with microlearning, there’s the question of defining microcrential and digital badge—two separate though related concepts.

The MacArthur Foundation, a prominent proponent of digital badges, describes them as a way to “make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings.” You might also think of digital badges as the Web’s equivalent to Girl Scout or Boy Scout badges—acquire a new skill or new knowledge, and get a badge to mark your accomplishment. Digital badges can give learners a stamp of credibility for the wide variety of learning activities they can now engage in on the Web. (IMS Global Learning Consortium, which is managing the Open Badges Specification, and Open Badges are two more good sources if you want to know more about digital badges.)

Digital badges are the primary example of microcredentialing—a type of credentialing that’s significantly less complex and time-consuming than traditional degrees and certifications.

Growth in both microcredentials and digital badges makes sense to us. Microcredentials are natural territory for associations, so many of which already offer or support fuller-blown credentials, and logically connect to microlearning, which (as we just saw) is on the rise.

Learners increasingly appreciate and seek out ways to demonstrate their ongoing learning in what we term “the other 50 years”—the typical lifespan after adults leave higher education. That makes the self-verifying and immediate nature of digital badges (they embed information about what the learner has done to achieve the badge and can be visibly granted and revoked in real time) appealing to learners—and employers.

Gaming Poised for Bigger Growth Than Flipping

Flipped classes, offered by 13.3 percent of survey respondents using technology for learning, rank third among these emerging types of learning. Plans for the coming year are more conservative than for microlearning and badging—only 14.4 percent say their organizations will add flipped learning in the 12 months ahead.

But I see significant potential for flipped classes, especially when applied beyond traditional classrooms in the Khan Academy mode and used with conferences, seminars, and workshops. With flipped learning, learners do work in advance so they come together with a shared baseline of knowledge and are able to focus their time together on more active learning—it flips (hence the name) the traditional approach of using class time for lecture and non-class time for hands-on work related to the lecture.

People today are time-strapped, and it only makes sense that learners want to make the best use of time spent together with peers, teachers, and facilitators. The paucity of time for learning plus video’s popularity (flipped learning often uses Web-based video to cover preparatory or foundational content) make me think more associations should be considering how they might leverage flipping. (And if you want some ideas for how your organization might make use of flipping, check out “Leveraging the Flipped Classroom for Professional Development and Continuing Education.”)

While current adoption of gamified learning—used by only 9.9 percent of respondents using technology for learning—is lower than adoption of flipped classes, gamification’s future looks brighter. A fifth (20.4 percent) of respondents using technology for learning reported plans for gamified learning in coming year. If that growth pans out, gamification will leapfrog ahead of flipping.

Gamification uses game mechanics and strategies in non-game contexts to engage users and improve learning by playing off our natural proclivity for competition, achievement, and status and by using elements like storytelling to interest us.

For a fuller definition of gamification and examples of the two categories of gamification—structural (think points and leadersboards) and content (think scenarios)—I recommend this brief video by Dr. Karl Kapp.

MOOCs Stagnating

Of the five emerging types of learning, massive open online courses are the one offering where projected adoption in the year ahead is smaller than current adoption—a meager 6.7 percent of respondents currently using technology for learning offer a MOOC, and only 5.6 percent plan to offer one in the future.

A MOOC is a free online course in which large numbers of people can enroll. (At least, a MOOC is free in the purest form, though many MOOC providers, like Coursera and edX, have begun monetizing their investment in the development and support of these courses by charging an optional fee for a course certificate.) The large numbers of enrollees can be quite impressive—the Learning How to Learn MOOC, taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski and available on Coursera, has had almost two million learners take it, making it the world’s most popular MOOC to date. And the enrollments keep growing.

MOOCs typically feature a blend of video content, discussion boards, downloadable readings, and peer-to-peer evaluation of learning. Despite the possibility of millions of enrollments, making a MOOC need not require a huge team or break the bank—Dr. Oakley shot her video for Learning How to Learn in her basement and edited it largely by herself—and the whole MOOC was made for under $5,000. (Be sure to check out my Leading Learning Podcast interview with Barbara Oakley.)

While MOOCs may never be huge for most associations, this massive business model has potential for associations that have content that is valuable to broad swaths of the profession or industry they serve—or even to society at large. And MOOCs could be a great way to raise awareness of the field served by an association and attract new members. (If you want more on MOOCs and what they might look like in the association context, check out our post “Leveraging MOOCs for Professional Development and Continuing Education.”)

Pulling at Strands and a Rising Tide

While the data shows that these emerging types of learning remain more buzzword than reality for most membership organization, it also shows that, MOOCs aside, they are growing trends, and microlearning and microcredentialing in particular look poised to make a significant impact in the next couple of years.

That I mention microlearning and microcredentialing is significant. I feel each of these emerging types of learning is likely to appear most—and have the biggest impact—when used in conjunction with other types of learning, some also emerging and some more established. We’ll see microlearning spawning microcredentials, and microcredentials driving microlearning. We’ll see mobile learning—a natural delivery vehicle for bite-size learning—rise along with microlearning. We’ll see mobile learning and microlearning and flipped learning all used in the service of sustaining and reinforcing learning over time to combat the forgetting curve. MOOCs and microlearning will draw on gamification to help with learner motivation.

While Association Learning + Technology 2017 necessarily treats microlearning, digital badges, flipped learning, gamification, and MOOCs as separate entities, the reality is they mix and mingle in the real world, and the growing adoption of one emerging type of learning is likely to be accompanied with growth in other emerging types. As the saying goes, a learning tide lifts all boats—or something like that.


P.S. I’ve included some data and findings from Association Learning + Technology 2017 above, but there’s much more in the full report, which broadly assesses the use of technology to enable and enhance learning in the association market (beyond just these emerging types of learning). The full report is available for free at https://www.tagoras.com/catalog/association-learning-technology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.