What is the biggest challenge that organizations face when developing and launching online learning systems? Many of the players in charge of association e-learning initiatives do not come from an education background, much less an e-learning background.
That's why it's so important not to underestimate the level of resources needed to make such an initiative successful, says Jeff Cobb, a consultant and speaker specializing in internet marketing and online learning.
"E-learning is often saddled with the expectation of revenue production, but is often treated more as a project than as a core part of the association's strategy," says Cobb. "Not surprisingly, the desired revenues often are not achieved. When exploring any new initiative—online learning or otherwise—the general expectation has to be set that it is going to encounter unforeseen challenges."
For an association to overcome those challenges, significant time should be spent on understanding how e-learning can best meet member needs. This means talking to and surveying members, assessing the overall market, and creating a formal strategy.
"Too often," says Cobb, "e-learning boils down to selecting topics and creating a long list of desired features for the software that will be used. These are certainly important activities, but only after significant time has been spent determining the real value that e-learning can deliver."
Here's something else to chew on: In a recent survey Cobb conducted on e-learning in the association sector, 61 percent of respondents reported that their organizations are currently using e-learning, with an additional 26 percent planning to launch e-learning initiatives within the next year. But in a follow-up survey with those organizations currently offering e-learning, only 31 percent revealed that their organizations had a formal, documented strategy for the program.
"The topics and course content are usually only part of the potential value," says Cobb. "Helping members manage their professional development and credentials and helping the organization streamline operations around continuing education are benefits that may far surpass simply providing online courses."
While there is no silver bullet for developing and launching a successful e-learning system, Cobb does have some recommendations that could at least put you on the road to success. Consider the following tips:
Invest in the time to understand member needs, assess the market, and create a formal strategy.
Be sure that leadership is committed to bringing together the needed parts of the organization.
Don't assume that the content or the features and functionalities of your system have to be cutting edge. "I have seen many instances where relatively simple content, delivered in a simple system, is highly successful because it actually meets member needs," says Cobb, "while other, more complex approaches that are heavy on bells and whistles go down in flames."
For anything beyond simple-information, transfer-type offerings, get instructional design help—or at least build
up instructional design knowledge internally.
Outline—and document—a general process for how your organization will decide which e-learning products to create, how to create them, and how to price them.
Consider how e-learning will interface with your membership database. "One of the biggest organizational benefits of e-learning," says Cobb, "is that it can automate many of the operational processes related to managing continuing education."
Finally, Cobb says, we are still at a point—both in terms of technology and end-user skills—where organizations are certain to encounter users having difficulty using online learning. Organizations need to be prepared to support users appropriately.