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How Associations Can Leverage Trends in Continuing Education
Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the U.S. workforce describe themselves as professional learners, meaning they have taken a continuing education course in the past year, while 36 percent have done so for a license or certification in their field, said a recent Pew Research Center survey. The number of adults engaged in continuing education is expected to grow for several reasons, including technology advancements offering greater convenience and access, the high cost of college driving students to non-traditional, less expensive educational paths, and the need to keep up with rapid changes to jobs.

Many professional learners look to associations for continuing education and certification programs. But the field is more competitive than ever. Quite simply, said SmithBucklin’s Chris Peck, senior director, Education & Learning Services, one of the biggest changes in continuing education in the last five years is, “there’s more of it.” This is due primarily to the rise of online educational providers. As the world becomes more digital, associations, as well as other providers, are offering more online continuing education, some of it for free, to meet the rising demand.

Associations have a tremendous opportunity to capture the growing number of professional learners. But to do that, they need to adapt to evolving trends to ensure their education stands out among the competition. Following are three things that board members should keep in mind to help ensure their association can achieve that goal.

Experience-level Segmentation

Associations with the most robust continuing education programs often segment their learners by experience level so they can cater the education to learners’ respective needs, said Peck. Learners that are new to a profession will need certain courses to earn certifications, while those who are further along or already have certifications have other needs. Conducting research to see where your membership sits on that spectrum is critical to creating robust programming. “It's not one size fits all,” said Peck.

For example, the National Association Medical Staff Services (NAMSS) developed a strategic initiative several years ago to customize its education for members. This process started with an assessment of the various stages of the career of medical services professionals, the individuals served by the association’s certification program. By defining the career pathway of medical services professionals, NAMSS tailored its educational programs, products and services to meet their members needs at every stage along their professional growth and development. From this education overhaul, NAMSS has seen a staggering 265 percent increase in revenue from the program over the last five years.

“Successful programs also focus on understanding the adult learner from a generational standpoint,” said Chris Ballman. Baby Boomers, for example, typically prefer information provided to them by an expert, often in a traditional face-to-face setting, explained Ballman. Generation Y is more comfortable with digital formats, such as online or e-learning. In face-to-face events, they may be more prone to use mobile devices to interact and engage. Others might prefer peer-to-peer learning, or non-traditional crowdsourcing type formats. Many prefer a blended approach, where face-to-face instruction is combined with an online component. And while the annual meeting is still a major source of continuing education, associations are offering it year-round in a variety of venues and forms to meet members’ needs. Overall, Ballman said, the key is to provide learners with a range of opportunities in a variety of formats.

Resizing Credentialing

One of the latest trends in education that should be on boards’ radar is micro-credentialing. Micro-credentials are a subset of a credential or certification — a mini-certification, if you will. Peck explained that if you are already a certified medical services professional, a micro-credential could focus on managing risk or documenting outcomes. Micro-credentials might be particularly attractive to more seasoned professionals who are already certified, but want to continue their educational journey by focusing on certain specialties.

Another trend that is particularly popular among Millennials is digital badging. Digital badging is essentially an online representation of skills learned. “Think about the Boy Scouts,” said Ballman — each badge indicates something that the learner has accomplished. The “badges” are housed online, often on a learner’s LinkedIn page. They tout not only the learners’ achievements and skills, but the digital badge itself promotes the association’s brand as a learning institution. And the better the reputation the association has for its educational offerings, the more credibility that badge carries.

These types of alternative credentialing are growing in popularity, but have not yet gone mainstream. A recent survey of 174 associations by Tagoras called “Association Learning and Technology” found that 9.8 percent of associations either currently provide or soon plan to provide micro-credentialing or digital badging, while another 24.5 percent will do so within the next 12 months.

It’s not inexpensive to ramp up these alternative forms of credentialing, so it’s imperative for boards to insist on proper due diligence prior to operationalizing a new program, Ballman said. Questions board members might ask include: What’s already out there in our industry? Is there a market for this type of certification? Would it serve our members? Is there buy-in from our stakeholders? Can our organization make a long-term commitment? In addition, the process of launching any type of program — whether it’s digital badging, micro-credentialing, or a full-fledged accredited certification program — can take several years. It also requires access to experts and resources to administer and monitor the program. “It's a living organism. It may need to be tweaked or changed,” Peck said.

Quality Education Drives Extraordinary Value

Offering high-impact, relevant continuing education is an investment in your membership and your industry, and it heightens the value of your association’s overall offerings. Furthermore, a strong program not only helps retain members, but reaches new ones, too. And as was the case with NAMSS, offering quality continuing education can lead to greater revenue generation.

Also, a strong education program establishes the association as a thought leader and an expert in the field. And that will draw more attention to the association, separating it from competitors. Ultimately, said Ballman, what furthers the field furthers the association.

To help ensure success, boards need to monitor their programs and ensure the proper metrics are established to measure return on investment — whether that’s revenue, participation, or quality of offerings. “Boards are getting much more sophisticated at making sound business decisions around education,” Peck said. “They want to see a financial portrait, a business plan around educational products and services,” she said. “This includes quantifying the amount of the investment needed to reach the expected ROI.” And if programs aren’t generating interest and meeting established metrics, they need to be re-evaluated, ideally every few years.
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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 70 years.


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