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Reinvigorating Association Education Programs
An association’s educational offerings are often a core component of their value propositions, providing everything from professional certifications to forums that address an industry’s most pressing challenges. However, some associations fall into a comfortable posture with their current programs and may be missing the benefits of a thoughtful evaluation.

“Your association’s conference or event represents one of the most important face-to-face interactions you may have with members in a given year,” said Chris Ballman, senior director, Education & Learning Services at SmithBucklin. Today, many successful associations are employing systematic evaluations of their educational programs, while taking note of emerging instructional trends designed to boost the engagement factor and enrich the member learning experience.

An association’s board of directors, Ballman said, can play an important role in a mission-centric approach to evaluation and help ensure that the association’s education components are not only keeping pace with member needs today, but also set on a strong course for the future.

Bring Objectives Into Focus

Before considering specific changes, Ballman said, associations should evaluate elements of their programs and set clear objectives and outcomes for what they want to accomplish. For example, your association might be providing continuing education and/or professional certifications as a benefit members cannot get elsewhere; showcasing a new product line in order to drive revenue; and/or offering thought leadership that will drive membership value and reinforce industry relevance.

“Boards can evaluate program objectives and intended outcomes in the spirit of ensuring that an association’s educational agenda is in alignment with its overarching mission and direction,” Ballman said. Here are some questions boards might pose:
  • What portion of our overall value proposition does our educational program represent?
  • Is the complexion of our education program truly in alignment with our mission? Why or why not? What are areas for improvement?
  • Are the objectives and outcomes in line with both our ideological and fiscal agendas?
  • Are we appropriating resources to our educational programs that are commensurate with the portion of our value proposition that such programs represent?
  • When we look toward the future of our industry, are our offerings going to remain relevant? Are we poised to effectively evolve?
Clearly, Ballman said, every association is different, but these are the sorts of thoughtful discussions that boards can have about their programs and recommend modifications where they deem appropriate.

Enhance Engagement and Learning

“Recent studies show that the average adult’s attention span is somewhere between three and 15 minutes when focusing on one particular subject. More associations are considering this fact when designing their sessions, delivering strong content but in briefer formats than in the past,” he said. “And that change is helping to significantly increase engagement levels.”

In addition, Ballman said there are two emerging instructional techniques proven to engage today’s attendees: story-based and online/mobile-based teaching. Both are versatile and can be employed in combination with each other.

Story-based teaching is exactly what it sounds like — educating by telling a story. Because adults today are more likely to retain information when it is broken into segments, story-based instruction is designed to grab the audience’s attention and keep them hooked for short periods of time. And, traditionally, stories focus on real-life practicalities and examples that can make a session more relatable to attendees.

Online/mobile-based teaching is another method of creating an interactive learning environment. “Members can use tablets or smartphones to enhance the viewing experience of content on another device such as a large viewing screen, and even to answer questions and interact with a speaker during a presentation,” Ballman said. “This is a great way to keep attendees involved in the session, and make them feel like part of a conversation.”

It can also be beneficial to blend these two techniques. “Everyone has a distinct learning style. There is kinesthetic, which represents active, hands-on learners,” Ballman said. “But there are also audio learners and visual learners. The greatest way to reach a wide variety of people is to incorporate different formats into your session so that you inevitably appeal to all attendees. Both story-based and online/mobile-based teaching platforms are effective ways to do that.”

Evaluate Success from 40,000 Feet

Like the objective-setting process, Ballman said, boards can play a crucial role in a high-level evaluation of an association’s education programs.

While it’s fairly standard practice for associations to send a post-event survey to attendees asking them to rate various sessions and events, Ballman suggested that many associations today are employing both quantitative and qualitative analyses appropriate to the objectives for each session. Those analyses can help the board review and evaluate from the highest level.

“Again, having a process in place for revisiting the original set of objectives and outcomes, and reevaluating the program from a mission-minded position is a healthy exercise, particularly for associations whose education efforts represent a major component of their value propositions,” he said.

APRA Program Gets New Life

Using several new engagement techniques, the Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement (APRA) set out to create more lively and memorable sessions for the attendees of its two primary educational events this past year.

Using a TED Talk-style format, the association designed “APRA Talks” that included a series of three 15-minute sessions. “One speaker even wrote and performed a song — what a memorable way to tell a story,” Ballman said.

At its event in Las Vegas, APRA hosted small-group discussions that featured a theme and games based on the location. Table discussions were led by educators dressed as “dealers” (complete with Vegas-style visors) who fostered interaction by dealing out question cards. In New Orleans, APRA incorporated a Mardi Gras theme for its table discussions and awarded beads during its Q&A.

At both events, association staff and leaders casually interacted with attendees, observing the groups and live-tweeting discussion points to share the energy and excitement with those who could not attend.

“By including succinct, unique and interactive elements, APRA ensured that attendees stayed engaged the whole time,” Ballman said. He also noted that the positive feedback APRA received both during and following the event confirmed the success of its new approach.

Reinvigorate Programs and Drive Member Value

Association events of any kind represent a tremendous opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with members, Ballman said. For associations with educational offerings that are critical components of those events, staff and boards can work effectively together to evaluate them and inject renewed purpose in areas where needs warrant. By setting mission-focused objectives, considering new teaching and engagement techniques and evaluating success with an eye toward the future, associations today can enrich the member experience and strengthen that relationship for years to come.
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MARCH 2016 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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