Anticipating Risk in Online Learning

Anticipating Risk

So, you’ve decided to embrace online learning at your association. You know what a source of non-dues revenue this can be, and you know how popular eLearning has become in the association space. Well, not to be a Debbie Downer, but the board is going to have some questions. Have you anticipated the risk in online learning? Do you know how to overcome the challenges that come with implementing such an initiative? Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and let’s talk.

Risk 1: Being under staffed and ill prepared for implementation and delivery

How many people are in your education department? Will you have enough people to help with course creation, managing your LMS, marketing your courses? Not being prepared for the amount of work that goes into creating a successful online learning initiative could kill the program before it even starts. You’ll need to determine how many departments need to be involved and who needs to be trained. Creating the internal infrastructure to support online learning is a critical first step.

Risk 2: What if we build it and no one comes?

Before you run out and purchase a shiny new LMS with all the bells and whistles, have you considered the demand for online education at your association? You‘ll need to consider the size of your audience, the commonalities among that audience (will they require the same courses), growth within the occupation your association serves (a growing occupation offers more potential members and non-members to consume your educational offerings), and licensure/certification requirements (if members and non-members must maintain certifications and licenses then you have a built in audience with a need for your courses). Additionally, is professional parity an issue? In other words, do members need to keep up with the Joneses professionally? For example, a marketer is often considered only as good as his or her credentials and someone who is a member of a marketing association has an advantage over a marketer that isn’t in terms of professional credibility. You should also determine if your association caters to members and nonmembers within a profession that encourages professional and personal enrichment. For example, development directors and fund raisers often desire additional information and best practices for putting on fundraisers and seeking endowments for their nonprofits.

Risk 3: Not marketing your courses effectively

Market research is critically important to marketing your courses effectively. You must know who your audience is, what they need, what they want, what messaging resonates with them, and their reason for choosing online education. This allows you to create positioning and messaging strategies that work. Will you use email? Will you offer incentives? Will you run promotions? What about social media? Will you engage members and potential members on Twitter? What about content marketing? Will you write blogs and create infographics that add value for your members? Make sure you’ve taken the time to plan your marketing strategy. Sit down with the board and create a strategic plan to determine your goals and a marketing plan to make those goals happen.

Risk 4: Bad course design

You repurposed an old PowerPoint presentation. It has tons of text on the slides because there was a lot of information to cover. Your subject matter experts say the information is accurate and educational. Yet, members and nonmembers aren’t coming back to take more courses. This is probably because your courses just don’t appeal to learners. Maybe its aesthetics or presentation style, maybe the information is boring and tedious to get through. Maybe the learner simply can’t retain the information as presented. In truth, creating effective courses is half art, half learning science. An instructional designer knows how to present information in bite sized pieces that are easy for the learner to understand and engage with. If you don’t have an instructional designer on your team, consider hiring one or seeking additional information on course design best practices from reputable sources such as this blog, or Articulate’s website. You might also want to invest in a solid piece of course design software such as Storyline, or make sure your LMS provider offers you a course design tool.


No risk, no reward they say, and in this case it’s true. Online learning can change the game at your association. No longer must you suffer declining numbers and live events with poor attendance. You can achieve success with eLearning creating a stream of non-dues revenue. You can reach a wider audience than ever before, and you can change the course of a young professional’s life by creating courses that fill the skills gap left upon graduating from college and entering the professional arena. You can reduce costs associated with training and career development. You can also make an environmental impact because eLearning is ecofriendly. Yes, starting an online learning initiative at your association is risky. There are costs involved and you’re going to need to prove that ROI to the board. But, you can do it! If you carefully anticipate and address the risks of online learning and plan for success, you can achieve a successful outcome and reap the rewards of board member accolades and satisfied learners.


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The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy (And when to use each one)

Empathy v Sympathy“Make your audience care.” It’s an often repeated tenet of instructional design and it sounds great in theory. If you can make your audience care about the material they will engage more deeply with the content and retain it longer. Just saying “make your audience care” is not the whole story though. While many designers will spend time trying to figure out how to make people care, they won’t spend any time figuring out what “kind” of caring they want to elicit, and, yes, there is more than one. I present to you the difference between two major forms of caring, sympathy and empathy.

The two words are often confused, and for good reason, since their definitions are so similar. They both come from the root “path” meaning “feeling.” Their difference is actually quite subtle. In simplistic terms, sympathy involves feeling things for someone while empathy means feeling things with someone. For example, when another instructional designer is up against the wall and has numerous assignments due at the end of the week, I empathize with them since I’ve been there myself. I understand how they are feeling and can vicariously feel those emotions as well. If, on the other hand, someone from the sales team mentioned a particularly stressful sale, I would have less frame of reference. I can still feel sympathy that he or she is going through a difficult time, but I would have a harder time commiserating since the specific situation doesn’t directly relate to my personal experiences.

So how does knowing this help you?

Sympathy and empathy are both powerful versions of the same emotion. The contexts in which they should be used are very different. If you goal is to train skills or teach concepts that are directly relevant to a person, then evoking empathy would be the correct tactic. You want that person to put him or herself into the situation and connect through similar experiences. For example, I can relate the importance of new safety guidelines by putting characters into the same dangerous situations the learners might find themselves in. If, instead, your goal is awareness or fundraising, you will want to go with sympathy. For instance, most people probably don’t have the experiences necessary to truly understand the horrors of war. If you were trying to raise money for wounded veterans it would make more sense to try and build sympathy in your audience rather than empathy.

Incorrectly using empathy over sympathy, or vice-versa, can limit the efficacy of your eLearning program. By understanding the difference and consciously choosing which to use, you will be on your way to tailoring learning experiences to your audience.

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Don’t Treat Beginners and Experienced Learners the Same Way

eLearning for beginners and experienced learnersSome time ago, I was cast as a chorus member in a musical. I could sing and read music, but I didn’t have any experience dancing. So, I was a beginner for one set of skills, but not for the other. Everyone had to learn everything together though, despite the fact that we were at different stages of learning. Trying to create one-size-fits-all eLearning can lead to similar difficulties. When learners feel alienated or overly frustrated it can actually impair their ability to learn. Let’s look at the differences between how new and experienced learners process information.

For Beginners

I wasn’t the only person without a background in dance. But our choreographer didn’t seem to realize that her instructions to “grapevine” or “step ball change” didn’t mean anything to us. So we asked her to slow down and show us how to do each step piece-by-piece. To her, each of the instructions conveyed a lot of information because she knew what they meant. We didn’t know, so they weren’t detailed enough for us.

When you create eLearning for beginners:

  • Spend time showing them how they’ll benefit and get them motivated
  • Start by showing them the pieces first, don’t jump right into the process
  • Go over the big picture first, then dive into the specifics
  • Show every single step and sub-step, don’t leave anything out
  • Give audio or text explanations with process visuals, beginners aren’t likely to see the connections right away
  • Use line drawings instead of photos for directions and diagrams, this makes it easier to focus on the essentials
  • Key takeaway: Beginners need to build mental models from scratch. They start with individual pieces and then slowly learn how they’re connected to one another.

For Experienced Learners

I wasn’t the only person with a background in music. So we had to grin and bear it every time the music director slowed down to explain where we were or what the symbols on the page meant. He was doing a good job, since some of the chorus members were new to this. Still, we wanted to skip to the hard stuff. We already knew this, so there was too much detail for us.

When you create eLearning for experienced learners:

  • Don’t spend too much time on benefits and motivation, they already know the value
  • Don’t bother showing the pieces
  • Give a brief reminder of the big picture, then dive into the specifics
  • Only show the exact parts they need, they already know the context
  • In most cases you don’t need to explain how a process visual works, an experienced learner will recognize familiar concepts
  • Give them less instruction and more opportunity to practice, they’re interested in application
  • Key takeaway: Experienced learners already have mental models. They don’t consciously think about the pieces, their minds jump straight to the connections. They want to see how new information fits with, or changes, their existing knowledge.

One-size-fits-all eLearning may sound like a good thing, but that isn’t always the case. Consider making two separate courses if your target audience has mixed skill levels. That way you can get the experienced crowd back to work faster and avoid confusing the newcomers. Have you worked on or taken a course that would have been better if it was tailored to different skill levels? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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Is It Time to Assess Your eLearning Course Audience?

Association MarketingYou’re offering courses online. You think the content is relevant. So, where are your learners? Maybe it’s time to assess your eLearning course audience. You might not be familiar with market segmentation or demographic and psychographic research, but without them, chances are your bottom line will suffer. But that’s okay, help has arrived to get you started, marketing style.

Market Segmentation

Market segmentation is the process of breaking your potential audience up into groups that have similar needs. The four basic market segmentation strategies are based on:

  • Behavioral differences
  • Demographic differences
  • Psychographic differences
  • Geographical differences

Suppose your association caters to nonprofits seeking to learn more about fundraising and development. The types of people who would need this information are varied. Are you targeting board members and development directors with the same messaging? How about volunteers within the organization? Each of these segments requires a different marketing message to reach them. If I was a board member, I might want to make sure my team is doing all they can for the organization, whereas a development director might be looking for new ideas to implement, and the volunteer might simply want to know more about how fundraising works. Should they all take the same course? How does the course apply? If you don’t segment your audience and target the individuals who will benefit the most from your offerings, this could explain why your course audience is lacking.

Demographics and Psychographics

Demographics are segments based on age, income, education, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. For example, in marketing we may speak of  baby boomer, upper-middle class, college educated, females as a target audience. We have segmented this group into a demographic profile. Why does it matter? We can assume certain traits are similar among members of this demographic group and can create marketing messages based on those similarities. For example, did you know that before the 2008 recession in baby boomers possessed “three-quarters of the nation’s financial assets “and an estimated $1 trillion in annual disposable income?

Psychographics refers to attitudes, beliefs, lifestyles, etc. For example, did you know that millennials are active in their communities? In fact, the 2013 Millennial Impact Report revealed that “73% of millennials surveyed volunteered for a non-profit in 2012.” Did you know that Generation X is the first generation that was largely a product of divorce. As a result, this generation was more cautious, less concerned with maintaining the status quo, and married later in life than prevoious generations.  If demographics tell you what people are, then psychographics tell you who they are.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Confession: maybe it’s not the eLearning course audience that isn’t interested. Maybe the value proposition isn’t interesting. But if you target your courses to the right audience, and create messages that resonate with the segment that values your offerings the most, your level of success is likely to rise. So, when your courses aren’t selling like they used to, it’s time to evaluate your marketing segmentation and assess your eLearning course audience.





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Top 4 Things You Can Learn from Buzzfeed (and #2 will blow your mind!)

elearning information catIn the modern world, clickbait marketing has taken the internet by storm and websites like Buzzfeed are leading the charge. You’ve probably seen their articles with catchy titles like, “20 Reasons the 90’s were Awesome,” or, “10 of the Cutest Cats You’ve Ever Seen (#4 is so cute you’ll want to explode).” You’ve probably clicked on more than a few of them. You may have even taken one of their many quizzes. While many may feel that these kinds of sites are heralding the end of intellectualism, no one can deny they’re effective for driving traffic. Discovering and using their techniques can boost excitement and interest in your program. These can help increase engagement and retention with your eLearning content. If BuzzFeed can make people excited about taking a quiz, wouldn’t it be great if you could do that with the quizzes in your eLearning? So, without further ado, here are four ways BuzzFeed dominates their industry and how you can use their methods to dominate yours.

1. Lists, Lists, Lists
What they do: The Buzzfeed business model, while not the first internet company to use lists, is definitely the most prolific and for good reason. Lists are a proven way to generate interest in a topic. Cleverly named lists are some of the most-engaged-with content on the web.
What you can do: Take information you want to deliver and present it as a list. Not only are lists the most convenient way to categorize information, they also let participants immediately know how much content to expect.

2. Anticipation
What they do: The writers at Buzzfeed are masters of creating anticipation with catchy headlines. They use attention grabbing titles that not only pique curiosity but provide a challenge of sorts, betting readers that they have not seen a cuter cat, thus drawing people in.
What you can do: Presenting your content in the best light possible from the very beginning is key to developing interest. People are excited to learn things that are exciting and setting that expectation early can lead to more engagement later. Give your learners a reason to care and dare them to be interested. Just make sure they have good reason to be excited, or they’ll be disappointed instead.

3. Graphics
What they do: Buzzfeed articles are full of graphics and small animated GIFs. These images add color and life to the article.
What you can do: No one wants to read a “wall of text.” Using imagery that is related to the subject and also constructive can increase engagement. “Zoning out” is a major issue that can be helped with additional productive stimuli.

4. Short and Sweet
What they do: Buzzfeed articles are all about getting in, getting to the point, and getting out. No fuss, no muss. Content is intentionally kept short in order to provide bite-sized entertainment for busy people on the go. Every article either has very few entries or each entry is no more than a sentence or two.
What you can do: Presenting information in smaller chunks dramatically increases understanding. It’s natural to want to explain things fully and clearly, but taking a step back and allowing users to digest information a little at a time will actually lead to better results in the long run.

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The Content or the LMS? Which Comes First?

Which comes firstYou need both. Without content the LMS is an empty cookie jar. It’s pretty looking but frustrating every time you open it. Then again, content without an intuitive platform for delivery is a treasure hunt, often without a treasure map to guide you.

But wait, don’t order yet, there’s more.

Before EITHER the content or LMS is considered, it is important to step back and think:

  • Who am I providing this content for and why do they need it?
  • What can I offer that is both relevant and unique?

If you cannot answer either of those questions, then neither content NOR an LMS will help you provide successful educational material. Once you have a clear direction, understanding what type of content will be most relevant will help you select an LMS. What will resonate with your audience and how will they consume it? Will they have blocks of time at their computer or will they be getting the information in snippets on their mobile devices? Knowing what the content should look like narrows the requirements so it’s easier to find the best LMS for delivering that material. It doesn’t necessarily need to be all written out before LMS consideration begins, but it is helpful to have a vision for the final content types and formats.

When we get requests from associations considering an LMS, it is always interesting to get an understanding of the current learning environment. For many there is already educational content, but it’s been developed sporadically, over time, it’s not all consolidated in one location, and it’s hard to navigate through all the archives. For others, the board is under pressure to offer educational content, but there isn’t any yet and they want to know how an LMS will help. Unfortunately, an LMS without content will not help provide education. Then again, content alone will not provide efficient education.

The reality is once the type of content is determined, and the LMS vetting process begins, there is time to start actual content authoring. The process of determining LMS requirements, narrowing down vendors, getting stakeholders to review demos, and debriefing on the different options can take weeks or months. Once an LMS is selected, there is still time to continue developing content. Implementing an LMS can also take weeks or months, depending how you need the system configured.

The end result of the original question? You can choose the LMS first and develop the content on the way, AS LONG AS you have done the strategic thinking about what types of content you need and how you want it delivered. Have the final destination in mind before you start building the road to get there.

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Learning Management Systems and You

Learning Management Systems and YouPeople always want to know how their association could benefit from a Learning Management System (LMS). To help explain, let me present a little scenario.

“Johnson!” Your boss calls to you. (Assuming your last name is Johnson, otherwise insert your name here). “I’ve got some great news! The board loved all the courses we offered at the conference last week. Detailed and informative, they said.” He smiles broadly while patting you on the back. “They want us to start offering them online.  Also, we need to track each user and send them certificates upon completion. I told them, ‘I know just the person for the job.’ You can save the day for us, right Johnson (or your name here)?”

Wait, he wants you to do what, with the what now? How are you supposed to compile all of your association’s training material in one, easy-to-access place, and still finish everything else that’s on your plate? Never fear! Your boss says the answer is simple. Find yourself a good LMS.

Was that enough explanation? Probably not. How about we break this down and start from the beginning? Cue the 1950’s film strip…

“Learning Management Systems and You!”

An LMS is a system for managing learning. It’s software that organizes, administers, and tracks  online training programs and certifications. Online training programs are often called eLearning.

Before we go any further, please note that an LMS is different from a Learning Content Management System (LCMS).   An LCMS provides tools for managing and creating course content, many LMSs do not.

Remember those courses from the conference your association already has? An LMS’s first job is to organize them, whether they’re PowerPoint presentations, recorded webinars, or something else. It can catalogue that valuable information in a convenient place, allowing your members easy access around the clock. Those courses will get a lot more traffic there than if they sit on your desktop in a seldom-opened folder labeled “conference stuff.”

Once you’ve found or built the appropriate course work, the LMS will administer that material for you. Whether that means something as simple as playing a video or as complicated as proctoring and grading an evaluation, a good LMS has you covered.

And after all that, the LMS will even take care of the tedious paperwork for you. Gone are the days of tracking trainees on spreadsheets by hand or physically printing and mailing out certificates. An LMS can automatically record and collate that information and provide you with organized progress reports for every learner in your system.

So, there you have a quick overview of what an LMS can do for you. The automation an LMS provides could save you hundreds of hours needlessly wasted organizing, administering, and tracking your education courses and training programs. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. A properly used LMS can even become a money maker for your association, providing a non-dues revenue stream for you as well as valuable training for your members.


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