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Evaluation and Improvement – An association’s 7th key to quality continuing education

Does your association have participants evaluate each of courses upon completion? Does your association provide evaluations because it is expected? Does your association require course evaluations from each participant before certificates or credit is awarded? Does your association have a systematic approach to annual or semi-annual review of the overall education program? In order to establish a quality education program you should have answered either yes, or working on it to all of these questions. And, if your answer is yes to any of these questions, what do you do with all of that information once it is collected?

I am amazed at how many associations go through all the time and effort to provide some type of evaluation form for participants at the end of the session then do little to even collect the results. At a minimum, the collected information should be used to improve the course content, format, instruction, delivery, and promotion. It should not be used just to determine if participants liked the food, liked the instructor, and that the temperature of the room was OK.

Your association should build a system that continually evaluates all of the courses upon completion. At a minimum you should share all of the information in a detailed summary with your education advisory committee, your faculty, and your staff. Use the information you collect to continually improve your program and courses and to build upon your reputation as an association that offers reliable quality education.

Closing the Loop: Evaluation and Improvement – the 7th key to quality continuing education

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You are almost finished – but not yet. You have completed the assessment and followed through with your planning. You designed the curriculum and developed the course content. You developed your marketing plan and promoted the course(s). You finished up on the delivery of the course(s), so now what? You don’t just want a good program you want an outstanding program, built upon high quality course content and delivery. To do this you included an evaluation and feedback process. You build a system that continually evaluates all of the courses upon completion along with an operational work flow process for each year. Set up a system that will evaluate each course, service or product against (Key 3) measurable short and long-term educational goals with performance projections. Most of all don’t let this valuable information collect dust. I have watched too many organizations evaluate each of their courses because it was expected or required, and then do nothing with the information they collected. Share all of the information, in a summary and detail where appropriate with your education committee members, your faculty, and your staff. Use the information you collect to continually improve program and courses, to build upon your reputation as a quality organization, and to become more profitable.

The 6th Key for Associations: Implementation and delivery of continuing education

One advantage of working for an association or non-profit, they have access to their membership data base that stakeholder organizations and marketers often only dream about. While it may be tempting to react with education offerings because a committee or board member has a friend who knows somebody, or they have an interest in a specific topic, please try not to act too quickly. Use your database to do an education need assessment of your members and their clients before saying yes to the committee or board member. Analysis the results of the assessment then develop a plan and design the course. Or just maybe, after analysis of the data you might just say no to the committee or board member. At least the decision or justification will be based upon actual data and not just a reaction.

Once a decision is reached and a plan is drawn up, follow your action plan of implementation and delivery. Association leaders need think in terms of a process that may take 2- 3 years before expecting to see major results. Action plans should include measureable steps throughout the process. Expectations however need to be realistic so be patient and give your plan time to develop and unfold.

At the program level successful associations generally have partners in their education initiative. Keep your lines of communication straightforward and open with your partners. Share information with your partners about what the competition is doing, or about new technology delivery methods. Stay abreast of advocacy or legal issues that may impact your program implementation or delivery directly or indirectly.

There are now four generations in the workplace. Is your association shrinking because new members are not joining? Or growing as the emerging professionals begin to outnumber your long term core members? Add to the mix, diversity in our social structure. Is your association the same core membership that you have experienced for generations? Or are you witnessing a change in membership make-up who hold new points of view? And every association is dealing with a rapid change while members are struggling to accommodate advances in technology. With all of these changes, expectations encourage you to try new and different approaches to delivery. Be flexible in your program implementation. Be flexible in your conference and course delivery methods. But don’t forget to measure progress and adjustments against your plan.

Implementation and Delivery: The 6th key to quality continuing education

Flickr Photo by NASA on The Commons

The first rule of implementation and delivery, follow your action plan. Be patient and give your plan time to develop and unfold. On an organizational level think in terms of a process that may take 2- 3 years to see real results. Between your needs assessment and analysis (Key 3) and planning and performance projection (Key 4) you should discover that you have been provides with direction and a path to follow. At the course level, keep a close eye on the competition, technology, along with your profession or trade issues. The entire world of continuing education and professional education has changed in the past several years. With four generations now in the workplace there is still room for the tried and the traditional but build a little flexibility into your plans to accommodate some advances in technology. Don't be afraid to try the new and the different but do so in measured steps that connect to your strategic education plans. Technology is changing faster than your three year plans. Stay as current of technology as your budget will reasonably allow. Be prepared for continual change and adjust accordingly. Plan on it!

The Fifth Key for Successful Association Education: Marketing and Promotion.

Associations can be successful by concentrating on their core mission. Their marketing approach should draw attention to the mission using a focused brand image. But just because the overall marketing approach contributes to the success of the association do not expect that same approach to work as well for the association’s education program or courses. When I discuss education within the context of an association I go back to my first key to building a successful education program - the commitment and support from the association’s leadership toward supporting and promoting the education program. Needless to say, the association’s education program should support the mission. However, while providing mission support education programs are still bound to their own set of traditional guidelines and business rules. My experience tells me that everyone knows what good education looks like – just ask them. Everyone has gone to school and attended classes at some point in their life. And everyone has an opinion on which teachers or instructors they liked or didn’t like, and why they feel that way. I call this the education expectations of the association’s leaders and members. Key two is critical in focusing in on the education expectations of the members through needs assessment.

For associations the fifth key is to promote the mission through education while identifying the related issues and developing education content that is offered to the membership meeting their expectations. The leaders of the association education must commit to including a separate promotion and advertising campaign of their education programs and courses not only to the general membership but also to targeted, special interest groups. I do not know of any association that would try to hold an annual conference or convention and not provide a directed promotion and advertising campaign to support that effort. Within most annual conferences you find sub-groups, those looking for information that addresses their interest.

There are those that believe that by simply marketing the association brand, they are also promoting their education courses. I do not hold that belief. What I have observed working closely with numerous associations over the years: poor promotion and advertising generally results in poor results based upon industry standard measurements of successful. Education programs and courses frequently succeed or fail based upon the success of the promotion campaigns of individual courses or specialized education programs such as certificate programs. You can have the world’s most advanced cutting edge courses taught by the most knowledgeable subject matter experts (SME), and delivered in the most appropriate formats at the right price - but if your target audience doesn’t know about event – it will fail. Associations that rely primarily on their reputation and branding for the association alone will incur poor results for their education efforts. When it comes to education adequate promotion and advertisement of the courses, related products, and services is essential for success.

The Fifth Key to Successful Education Programs and Courses: Marketing and Promotion.

Photo on Flickr by Mikko Luntiala

Note that I use two action words here, marketing and promotion. If the education program is intended for internal organizational use then be sure that your marketing plan is related to the needs assessment of your staff and indirectly to your clients. If the organization has fewer than 50 staff, internal promotion can be simple. Usually internal promotion can be successful on the organizations website, internal newsletter, email blast or a notice taped next to the coffee or soda machine.

If the program or course is intended for external use then be sure that your education marketing plan is included as part of your overall organization plan. Many organizations believe that by simply marketing their organization brand, that they are also promoting their courses. Education programs and courses succeed or fail based upon the success of the promotion campaigns of individual or collective courses or specialized education programs. You can have the world’s most advanced cutting edge course that is taught by the most knowledgeable subject matter expert (SME), which is delivered in the most appropriate format, and offered at the right price - but if your target audience doesn’t know about it – it will fail. Those organizations that rely on their reputation and organizational marketing alone will likely fail in their education efforts. When it comes to education, adequate promotion and advertisement of your courses or education products is essential. Budget accordingly with separate line items for promotion and advertising of education courses within the overall marketing budget.

“What Content?”- An opportunity for firms, use the fourth key to unlock the secrets of a quality education program.

Firms that are serious about professional development can use the fourth key as a framework for ensuring that their staff receives quality professional education. Firms are in a unique position in that they often are the source of knowledge; they have the subject matter experts (SME). This positions the firm as the leader and potential source of content. They are an excellent source to develop project based courses built from lessons learned from their own projects. At a minimum, these studies can be used in mentoring programs and establishing a firm culture of learning.

Let me begin with small firms, I define this as any firm with under 25 staff. Smaller firms should collaborate; work with other similar firms or even some client firms. When it comes to professional development your firm will benefit more if you cooperate with other firms on mutual interest topics. Remember, there is strength in numbers. Individuals from small firms usually rely on trade and professional association meetings, workshops, and conferences for much of their education. This is a great source for broad based professional education and includes the added benefit of networking. But for a more focused approach of obtaining education that is also related to addressing your business needs consider setting up some type of education “collective”. As a collective you increase the number of eyes that are scanning for that reliable source of new continuing education content and materials that is right for your business. The source of the education content may now be internal from anyone within the collective, or external as is common, or a blend of both.

It should be noted that all successful continuing education programs develop a systematic approach to identify, obtain and monitor the quality of the education material, how it is processed, designed, developed and delivered. A consistent approach to how the content follows a process flow enables the firm to establish and maintain checks and balances. As a firm grows in size, more effort should be placed on establishing a work flow process that monitors these elements.

There are a multitude of education formats and delivery models from which a firm can choose. According to ASTD, in 2010 for the first time in history the number of online education courses had passed the number of traditional classroom style courses. So ask, which model is best for the firm and the clients that they are trying to serve? (Yes, include your clients s some of your internal education activities).

“What Content?”- Associations struggle with the fourth key of a quality education program.

For most small associations the answer is usually “yes.” For many mid-sized associations the answer is “yes, most of the time.” For large associations the answer is, “well, it depends.” The question asked, “Does your association struggle with the fourth key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program?”

The fourth key to developing a quality education program is for the association to develop a systematic approach that will identify the appropriate subject matter content and support a consistent work flow process. Most small associations and many mid-sized associations have great difficulty finding appropriate content for their programs on a continual basis. These associations can be found relying on the same few subject matter experts to provide content and delivery, over and over again. Even well stocked wells have been known to go dry.

Regardless of their size associations still need to establish a reliable, wide based source of new content and materials that will position the association as a supplier of vetted, industry related quality continuing education courses. The source of the education content may be internal, external or a blend of both. Successful continuing education programs develop a systematic approach to identifying, obtaining and monitoring the quality of the education material, how it is processed, designed, developed and delivered. Most associations simply do not have enough resources to do all of these things themselves. However, even for the small associations an appropriate check and balance system can be established using limited resources with involvement of members and stakeholders.

There are a multitude of education formats and delivery models from which an association can choose. Which one is best for the association and their members and stakeholder? Developing clear course learning objectives, when done at the beginning of the process and when done properly will guide the association in selecting the appropriate subject matter experts (SME), the best course design, the appropriate content structure, and the most effective delivery method for a course. If there are any special requirements such as CEU’s, ILU’s, license or certification standards that need to be met then it is critical to insure that a system of safeguards is in place. An established system can be as simple as a check list or as complex as a sophisticated computer metrics.

“Where’s the data?” – The second key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

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The question I always heard from superiors and peers, “Where’s the data?” I believe that the seeds for needs assessment should be planted with the establishment of the strategic goals. Early on the organization should develop a systematic approach for identifying and analyzing the educational needs that relate to the overall strategic plan. Planning and analysis are simultaneous and should be ongoing.

As defined by Wikipedia, Needs assessment is a process for determining and addressing needs, or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions, often used for improvement in individuals, education/training, organizations, or communities. The need can be a desire to improve current performance or to correct a deficiency.

For education and training assessments there are a growing variety of models to from which to choose. Select a model or a blend of models which most closely match your goals, operations, personnel and budget. Methods and techniques for gathering information can vary from formal focus groups, to telephone or mail surveys, to online surveys such as survey monkey. The intent should be to gather timely information to enable those in the organization to make smart decisions based upon relevant and appropriate information.

If the program is intended for internal use of the organization’s staff education then it is important to match the model to the organization’s culture, operational structure, and short and long-term education and professional development needs. The content could relate to technical, conceptual, and/or personnel related needs. It is important to focus on the details of professional staffs’ participation in the needs assessment process. Determine how the needs for the educational program and products/services are identified, how the programs are developed and designed to address those needs.

If the education program is intended for external use, the assessment should relate to the business needs, support the organizations need for delivering training; ensure training delivery design relates to customer’s needs; verifies effective performance; and provides guidance into the evaluation process.

Chief Learning Officer (CLO)

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