Are we really talkin’ ’bout a revolution?

BY Jeff Cobb

Education Revolution - Picture of Matches Being Lit

I recently read with pleasure “An Education Revolution,” an article in ASAE’s August edition of Associations Now. It’s a good piece, and I certainly recommend it. I also applaud the three education initiatives it describes (indeed, I even participated in one of them.) These, in my mind, are clearly representative of the types of experiences that ought to be a much bigger part of the adult continuing education and professional development landscape.

But do they suggest a revolution?

I don’t think so. Not yet.

Welcome as they are, these sorts of initiatives will be no more than tactical tweaks and conversation pieces if more fundamental change does not occur. Here are five key changes I think are needed if we really want to see a revolution in association education:

1. Elevate the vision

Most of us leave the formal education system with roughly another 50 years in from of us. This is the horizon for lifelong learning, and continuing to learn effectively during this period has become more important than at any other time in human history. Meanwhile, in our current environment, companies are cutting back on training, and – at least in the U.S. – our K-12 and higher education systems continue to slip. As they make their way through adulthood, learners are increasingly on their own to continue their learning and education, and they need good allies.

This is big vision territory. Trade and professional associations are arguably the largest players in the largest – or, at the very least, longest – part of our overall education sector, but I am hard pressed to find instances of them talked about in this way, even by their own leaders. This needs to change. Association education is not about convening for isolated events; it is not about distributing CE credits of (in many cases) questionable educational value. It’s about supporting, facilitating, and leading a lifelong process for learners as they traverse “the other 50 years” of their lives and careers .

2. Grow the education function

I recently asked association educators in an online group I manage what they are doing for their own professional development. After more than a week, there are still no responses. No doubt this is partly due to people simply being busy – association educators seem to be perennially over-busy – but the silence also jibes with my anecdotal experience. In general, there does not seem to be a lot of professional development going on for the professional developers. Most that I talk to are not members of ASTD, or the eLearning Guild, or other such groups, much less do they attend the events held by these groups. Many do not come from education backgrounds in the first place and are not necessarily even aware of these groups. (It’s interesting, too, that while there are ASAE marketing and technology conferences, there is no education conference.)

As we reported in the (free) Speaker Report we published with Velvet Chainsaw, education staff are often too few in associations, and the person in charge of education very often does not hold a senior title in the organization. All of these things need to change. The type of vision I have articulated in the first point above merits serious investment in the education function.

3. Break down the silos and integrate

I use “silos” more to refer to mindsets than to actual departments – which means the term applies at least as much in small organizations as in big ones. Too much of the technology mindset in associations is dominated by the AMS. The annual meeting holds far too much sway in most organizations and consumes vast amounts of resources. Marketing is seen primarily as only one of the essential Ps – promotion – which leads to marketing playing a much more limited and isolated role than needs to be the case in today’s markets. Social media is likely to be “owned” by marketing, membership, meetings, or technology – almost never by education – and is rarely integrated across these areas in effective and meaningful ways.

When learning is conceived of as a lifelong process that an association plays a key role in supporting, facilitating, and leading, integrated thinking becomes essential. The lines blur between between the annual event and the rest of the year, between marketing and education, between social media and social learning, between the association management system and the overall learning “platform” provided by the organization.

4. Prepare teachers and learners

I’ve written and spoken in various places about my concern that adult learners are not as well prepared as they need to be to embrace the level of self-directed, lifelong learning that is now both possible and required by our learning economy. Here I will focus on the other side of the coin: presenters and subject matter experts (SMEs) need help.

It is a truism in higher education that simply because someone knows a great deal about a topic, he or she is not automatically a great teacher. The same notion applies in spades across the world of adult continuing education. I’ll wager most industry experts and even most professional speakers have never received any serious training in the principles of andragogy or in fundamentals of teaching like how to develop a session around clear, measurable learning objectives. If you have any doubt, just sign up for a Webinar or two from your association of choice. And of course, these are the “old” areas of teaching and learning. As for being effective facilitators, curators, and leaders of “sense-making” – skills needed in this new era – the percentage of those who are truly prepared drops dramatically.

Organizations that want to lead learning in their sectors need to invest in raising the preparedness of their learners and their instructors as part of investing in the education function within their organizations.

5. Measure the impact

Quick: what learning objectives did the last conference you attended help you achieve? How has your work or the work of your organization been impacted? Maybe you have answers to these questions, but the organization that provided the educational experiences almost certainly does not. In the survey we conducted for The Speaker Report, only 41.9 percent of survey respondents measured whether learning occurs at their major meeting, and a mere 7.6 percent conducted post-session assessments or follow- ups. Even those that measure learning are, in most cases, going no further than Kirkpatrick Level 1 post-session evaluations, and as Donald Clark points out, these really provide no reliable information about whether learning has actually occurred.

It may not happen tomorrow, or even next year, but it seems inevitable that both learners and their employers are going to want to see clearer indications of educational impact if they are going to continuing paying to attend conferences, seminars, and other educational events. We have already seen an intensive focus on ROI foisted upon corporate training departments. What happens in corporate America usually makes its way into associations, and the cycle gets faster as technology greases the wheels.

Whether through informal (e.g., surveying over time) or formal (e.g., careful pre- and post tracking of clearly identified participant groups) methods, associations will need to start putting more weight on demonstrating impact if they expect to hold on to the lead role the lifelong learning sector.


Those are my thoughts for what a real revolution would involve. What are yours?



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