Terri Tracey was there at the beginning, so to speak. The vice president of technology for the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), helped launch an online, for-credit course for members of her Tempe, Ariz.-based organization in 1996 — several lifetimes ago in the fast-paced world of online learning, or e-learning, as it has come to be known. Her advice to associations still contemplating e-learning opportunities?
“Jump in now! There are so many options in the marketplace that allow an organization to offer online courses for minimal cost. Take advantage of them.” Plenty of people would agree with her. We surveyed the field and found out how associations can benefit from implementing an e-learning program.
Improve attendance at meetings and the quality of education
“We've been able to grow in both our live, on-the-road seminars and in our online courses,” says Lisa Harrington, director of education, Florida Association of Insurance Agents, Tallahassee, Fla. “It has proved to us that online learning does not detract from our in-person seminars.”
Online courses have also freed up Harrington's training staff to work on higher-level courses, according to Joe Crumbacher, CEO of Tallahassee-based LearnSomething.com, the application service provider (ASP) for the Florida Association of Insurance Agents. “FAIA used online educational programs for lower-end skills, and they focused their trainers on higher-priced, hands-on training. They make more money from their stand-up presenters, and they deliver a higher quality overall product,” says Crumbacher.
Provide members with new benefits
“We archive our live, online sessions, so members listen whenever they want,” says Lori Sackett, director of continuing education for the American Society of Landscape Architects, based in Washington, D.C. She adds, “They can download presentations and show them to clients, so it's also a marketing tool.”
Earn new revenue
“We get positive cash flow out of this,” FAIA's Harrington declares. “By a very small margin, our profits online are greater than for our on-the-road product. It's a tiny sliver.” Over time, however, she predicts the margins will increase, because she can put a course online and run it with minor updates for a few years, much more than the 15 to 20 times she's able to use live courses.
According to Crumbacher of LearnSomething.com, the FAIA's revenue generation has nowhere to go but up. “They extend the reach of the lower-end content to more people, so they're delivering more courses,” he says. “They're splitting royalties with us for the online course — we get a third in exchange for absorbing the development costs — but the rest drops directly to the bottom line because there's zero overhead attached.”
Another example: Nearly 9,000 people have taken its self-directed online courses, at prices that start at $195 (the discounted member price), since ISM (formerly the National Association of Purchasing Managers) launched its Knowledge Center in 1999.
“We currently offer 23 different courses in the Knowledge Center,” Tracey says. “For these self-directed courses, virtually all of the costs are sunk and up-front.” Do the math, and you'll find that the ISM has taken in a minimum of $1.75 million dollars over that time, with minuscule operating costs.
Making It Work
There is a magic formula for making e-learning work, but associations have to be ready to swallow it: Preparation, with an emphasis on research. Not so much research into the mysteries of technology — although some of that is necessary — but research into the mysteries of association members and their needs, desires, and circumstances with regard to online learning. Here are some necessary ingredients:
Get support from the top
“No trainer is going to have a successful e-learning experience if he just decides to do it without support,” says Darin Hartley, developer of new business ventures for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), Alexandria, Va., and author of On-Demand Learning: Training in the New Millennium. “At a minimum, some general manager-level person is going to have to lead the charge.” He adds that “support” means financial support, not just cheerleading.
Know what your members want
At the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, Harrington made a detailed study of members' needs regarding the use of e-learning. Among the important details that surfaced was the fact that members would be taking the FAIA basic course during their lunch hours. Consequently, the course, which is 40 hours long, was designed to be taken in 15- to 20-minute increments.
Crumbacher says Harrington's research was invaluable. “She got very specific about where members would be using the computer, what kind of computer they had, and how long they'd stay online,” he says. “We had all that raw data going into the development process.”
Not everything comes out in member surveys, as Lori Sackett of the American Society of Landscape Architects discovered. Her members were “computer-literate, and open to the idea,” she says. “Being willing is great, but users do have to learn some new things.”
For example, not all members knew how to check to see whether they had enough RAM to allow the e-learning program to operate. She was also surprised when members began calling during live presentations to say that they couldn't see. It turned out that members were putting as many as 20 people in a room to look at a single screen.
“Now we offer registration for individuals and groups up to 10. Any more than 10, they have to call me to discuss how they're going to arrange the room,” she says.
If these problems seem trivial, ISM's Tracey offers a veteran's perspective. When her organization offered its first online courses, members would call to ask whether they needed an e-mail address and whether they could simply print out the course.
Tracey explains: “A well-designed online course doesn't translate to paper. To tell you the awful truth, we still get requests like that once in a while.”
Have a learning strategy
That doesn't mean an organization should have everything mapped out in detail for the next five years, says Darin Hartley of the American Society of Training and Development. “There should be some overarching idea of why you want to offer e-learning, what the benefits are, and what your group's technological strengths are. This may sound like a silly example, but if your group is Mac-based, and you know you're switching over to Windows, you wouldn't want to do anything that wasn't transferable from one system to the other.”
At the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, the benefit was seen as reaching more members at lower cost. Technology was outsourced, period. “My tech skills are irrelevant, because that's [the ASP's] role,” FAIA's Harrington says. And, as is the case with nearly everything associated with e-learning, strategy gets back to what members want and need.
The Institute for Supply Management, for example, offers both self-directed and instructor-led courses over the Web. “The self-directed courses allow the learner the most flexibility in scheduling, but they also require a lot more motivation and dedication to complete the course,” Tracey notes. “Instructor-led courses offer the opportunity for almost daily interaction,” and some people find it easier to complete the work in that kind of environment.
Learn what FRS means
“If you go to a vendor and say ‘I'm not quite sure what I want,’ the vendor is going to have what you want,” ASTD's Hartley says. “It seems like a simple premise, but it's where most e-learning efforts crumble.” To know what you want, you need a functional requirements specification (FRS).
“Saying that you want to create Web-based training for accountants is not a sufficient FRS,” he says. “You have to answer some questions first: What kind of training? What kind of Web-based training? Will it be delivered over the Internet? What are the bandwidth limitations? Can you do audio? Video? Does interactivity need to be built into it? How often does it have to be updated? All these things are part of a detailed FRS.”
Having a detailed FRS makes it easy to outsource — it's an important tool for qualifying vendors. Hartley says, “You can go down the FRS point by point to determine who the best vendor is. When you have a good FRS, you're calling the shots, and it is much more likely that you'll get done what you need to get done, at the price you want to pay, in the time you've asked to get it done.”
Shop for a business model
If an association is looking to an ASP to handle technical matters (and perhaps absorb some portion of development costs), consider the company's business model. They do differ.
When the Washington, D.C.-based Association for Retail Technology Standards, a unit of the National Retailers Foundation, wanted to initiate a series of e-learning courses on extensible markup language (XML), it originally intended to simply purchase courses from an ASP and then resell them to its members. Instead, they discovered a vendor that would work on a revenue-sharing basis.
Serebra is an ASP based in Vancouver, B.C., that sees itself primarily as a distribution channel rather than a seller of content.
Serebra charges ARTS an up-front fee for hosting, then takes an 80 percent share of whatever revenue ARTS generates selling XML courses offered through Serebra (and developed by a separate company, QTRAIN) to its members.
Eighty percent may seem like a big bite, but ARTS is able to offer high-level courses with no development costs, no fear of holding leftover inventory, and no capital investment in servers.
“The members actually pay for it,” says Bruce Stewart, president of Serebra. “The association is not committed financially. And the more they can drive usage, the more they put into the association's coffers.”
While the courses reside on Serebra's servers, their involvement isn't obvious: Members see only the ARTS logo, thanks to a co-branding deal. And ARTS simply takes credit for offering a new service that draws both existing and potential new members.
A somewhat different business model works for the Florida Association of Insurance Agents' application service provider, LearnSomething.com.
“They did all the computer work,” says FAIA's Harrington. “We did all the content work for the insurance courses. We also offer some generic courses on office software that come from LearnSomething.com.”
The ASP takes a third of the revenues generated by the FAIA courses in exchange for absorbing the development costs. The company gets more for the generic courses, but FAIA has no content-development investment there; the additional courses are seen as a bonus by members and yet another revenue stream for the association.
A third business model example is the relationship between the American Society of Landscape Architects and its ASP, PlaceWare. For Sackett, ASLA's director of continuing education, it was important to concentrate on content and have a trustworthy technology partner take care of details.
“The fact that I can depend on [PlaceWare] has allowed me to concentrate on the quality of our programs and how they're received by members,” Sackett says. “We couldn't do this on our server. Their software is great, and they've been able to address problems we've run into — like having so many of our members, who are very graphics-oriented, working on Macs.
“If I had to worry about whether our servers were going to go down, in addition to everything else, I don't think I'd be here,” he adds.
Don't let technology rule you
“The first thing I say when I go into a presentation with an association is, ‘If you've got something that runs on steam, and it works for you, don't break it!’” says Crumbacher.
“If you can present Power-Point slides over the Web and handle audio by having members dial in for audio conferencing on the telephone, and it works, that's great.”
That's exactly what the ASLA has done. And ISM's self-directed courses are text-only. So keep in mind that streaming video may be essential to an e-learning course — or it may not. Deciding how to proceed with the bells and whistles of online learning should be a function of what an association's members can handle. Audio-conferencing combined with online presentation may be impractical if the target audience is required to be online and on the phone at the same time when there's just one phone line available. Although, as several ASP providers point out, you can work around this by mailing a CD-ROM that contains the visual presentation ahead of time.
And there is a final point to consider, according to Lisa Neal, editor-in-chief of the Web publication eLearn Magazine. “You don't want to do away with face-to-face education. Some things require in-person learning, such as how to conduct a performance appraisal. That requires role-playing. But you can shorten the classroom time by offering preliminary classes online. That's the blended learning approach — orchestrating the kinds of interaction, the kinds of learning experiences, that you want.”
What's an ASP?
Here's a definition of an application service provider from webopedia.com: “Application service providers are third-party entities that manage and distribute software-based services and solutions to customers across a wide-area network from a central data center. In essence, ASPs are a way for companies to outsource some or almost all aspects of their information technology needs.”
As Jon Crumbacher, CEO of LearnSomething.com, an ASP based in Tallahassee, Fla., sees it: “The ASP model allows everybody to focus on what they're good at. The analogy I use is, when textbooks are written by professors, the professors don't concern themselves with what the cover art will be, how the pages will be laid out, what typeface will be used, how the book will be printed, bound, and distributed. They give the manuscript to a publisher. There is really no difference when we move to online publishing.”
To learn more about ASPs, visit http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/0,289893,sid9_gci213801,00.html.
Don't Forget the Presenter
Just as special skills are required for presenters who work on stage or on television, specific skills are required for live e-learning sessions, says Lisa Neal, editor-in-chief of the Web publication eLearn Magazine (www.elearnmag.org) and a managing consultant for EDS Digital Learning Services, Plano, Texas.
“The question is not just is somebody a good teacher or lecturer, but is somebody going to be effective online?” Neal says. You want to orchestrate things so you can take advantage of the technology, not let the technology become an impediment, she adds.
“For example, if I'm using text chat as part of the presentation, I can't read the text chat while I'm presenting; I lose my train of thought. On a few occasions, I've been able to have somebody sitting next to me with their own monitor, who can read the chat and nudge me, or put a Post-It Note in front of me to let me know I've got a question. It's that kind of process that can make a big difference.”
To learn more about on-line presentation skills and e-learning in general, visit the Web site of print publication e-learning Magazine at www.elearningmag.com.
Offer a Freebie
Visitors to the Web page for the Institute For Supply Management's Knowledge Center can take a free online course. The American Society of Landscape Architects also offers a free demo of its initial course offering.
Free courses are easier (and more convincing) than trying to describe all the benefits that accrue from e-learning. Even for computer-literate memberships, the experience can be instructive, says Lori Sackett, continuing education director for ASLA. Viewing a presentation, she says, helps members understand that they can do it at their convenience, and that there is no special software they have to learn to use. “That in itself is an important part of the process [of adaptation].”