As a 23-year veteran of building online applications and eLearning courses, I am excited to be witnessing the paradigm change taking place within association professional development. The current trend of running annual meetings virtually has forced association executives to rethink their approaches to teaching and learning and social networking. Educational offerings were already a part of face-to-face events; but this new phenomenon has impacted investment and thus the quality of learning activities online. Now associations are considering how to design hybrid events that take place both onsite and online. Done well, they’ll never go back to what they had before.

Let’s look at what has been impacted by the virtual event phenomenon:

  • Associations have used conferences budget to invest in online events that promote more formal (continuing ed) and informal (non-credit) learning.
  • Association staff have been encouraged to collaborate more often among departments and have invested marketing dollars and savvy look and feel into their platforms.
  • Associations will no longer just offer on demand eLearning but will use both synchronous and non-synchronous activities.
  • The conference can be offered live with a schedule or on-demand.
  • Webcams are now ubiquitous, and our online image — whether a still or live — will be mandatory for online discourse.
  • Executives are discovering that online events are a profitable business initiative.
  • We are seeing greater reliance on our member experts for contributing to the development of higher quality content. (See my new book, The Expert’s Halo, for more on how to succeed with that.)
  • The quality of learning events is improving.

I’m happy to see this paradigm change in the way we look at eLearning for the association world. With the exception of a few innovative medical societies, the association education department has typically viewed online learning as a chance to resell recorded webinars. Compared to their annual conferences, executives haven’t paid a lot of attention to online learning. Many efforts at online learning produced on-demand products that were primarily “didactic dumps” from an expert. Worthwhile but hardly a memorable learning experience.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto, which has nearly 1,200 signatories to date, lays out the daily challenge for those of us who believe in the power of web-based training.

Source: Serious eLearning Manifesto by Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer

During this time, the goal for associations should be to distribute online professional development experiences that follow serious eLearning principles. When we strive to do that, we see numerous impacts from our virtual events:

Improved “social presence” in online learning and networking events, including:

  • A feeling of connectedness through the use of webcams and excellent audio, thereby improving the learning transaction;
  • A heightened sense of community through visually identifying those who are present;
  • More active sharing and learning with live chat;
  • Opportunities for expressing authentic experiences, which help learners experience high-level thinking; and
  • Better social learning via strategic use of breakout rooms.

The shift of continuing ed to front and center:

Traditionally, the annual convention has placed fun social events for professional peers on the mainstage while relegating learning and continuing ed somewhere else, out of the spotlight. Now the learning opportunities provided through virtual events have become a big reason for attending.

Expansion of our stable of subject matter experts:

For example, the use of virtual “poster hall” presentations within the event provides greater opportunity for more association members to share their expertise.

Source: A 3D conference from VirBELA

Advances in look and feel:

  • Through well-designed artwork commissioned to create comfortable online environments; and
  • Via 3D avatars that create extraordinary possibilities to network with others.

Even the staid on-demand recording business, which has generated a small, consistent stream of revenue for associations, is undergoing transformation. Companies like Matchbox are providing “post-production” editing services that capture dynamic interaction between the expert speakers, their material and each other.

What we’re seeing now is only the beginning of the exciting change to come!

Contact Web Courseworks today to start planning your next virtual conference for associations.