Published On: December 4, 2018By
How do associations support lifelong learning for members? Two association learning leaders share their best advice

According to the most recent IRS reports, nearly 64,000 professional and trade associations are based in the U.S. As you might expect, many of these organizations operate in similar ways. But when it comes to supporting lifelong learning, they’re definitely not created equal.

Over the past few years, I’ve helped more than 50 organizations choose a learning platform as a backbone for continuing education programs. They all want to help members develop valuable knowledge and skills throughout their careers. However, the way they combine strategies and systems is as unique as the organizations, themselves.

Lifelong Learning: Two Views

How different can continuing education methods be? I found out several months ago, when I hosted a roundtable with leaders from two prominent member-based organizations – Kevin Pierce, Manager of Digital Learning at The American Academy of Dermatology and Jake Gold, Director of Education at The Community Associations Institute. Here’s a brief profile of both:

American Academy of Dermatology - AAD - Association learning leader explains how this organization supports lifelong learningThe American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) – Founded 80 years ago, this medical specialty society combines education, research and advocacy to keep its 20,000+ physician members at the leading edge of their profession.

Community Associations Institute - CAI - learning leader explains how his association supports lifelong learningThe Community Associations Institute (CAI) – This organization helps build homeowner communities by supporting its 40,000 members, including association boards and management firms, homeowner leaders, community managers, association management firms and professionals that provide related products and services.

As my conversation with Kevin and Jake unfolded, similarities and differences quickly surfaced. Both organizations:

  • Primarily serve a U.S. member base, but are expanding their footprint internationally
  • Are strategically committed to providing lifelong learning
  • Do a stellar job of educating their members, and
  • Rely heavily on an LMS as a foundation for their learning technology stack.

However, even though both deliver strong lifelong learning experiences, each has a very different way of making that vision a reality.

Kevin and Jake generously shared lessons from their experiences, as well as their goals for the future. So if you’re developing a continuing education program for your organization – or if you want to improve your existing offerings –

I encourage you to consider the following factors that are shaping decisions at AAD and CAI:

8 Keys to Lifelong Learning Program Success

1) Be Prepared to Adapt Over Time

KEVIN SAYS:  20 years ago, physicians took one exam and were certified for life. Continuing education was a choice. Our members decided what they wanted to learn, or if they wanted to continue learning at all.

But now, lifelong learning is a mandate. Our members are state-licensed doctors with board certifications they must maintain. We still offer plenty of educational choices, but medical specialty societies require recertification in 10-year cycles. Given this changing landscape, we align education activities with board requirements through the full spectrum of our dermatologists’ careers, from residency to retirement.

We realize that our members must meet specific board benchmarks, in terms of the number and types of credits they receive. But we include other topics of interest, as well. All of our courses are created by physicians for physicians. It is specialty content that must be accredited by the ACCME. In other words, it isn’t generally available from other sources.

JAKE SAYS: Over the past few decades, community associations (homeowners associations and cooperatives) have experienced explosive growth. In 1970, there were only 10,000 associations representing 2 million residents. Today, nearly 350,000 community associations represent 70 million residents. Now 20% of Americans are part of a community association.

We provide education and credentials that help community association professionals advance their careers, increase their earning potential and manage communities effectively. We offer 17 courses – both instructor-led and online – on topics like leadership, communications, budgeting, finance, insurance and law. The more courses members complete, the more credentials they earn.

But who actually plans to become a Community Association Manager when they grow up? No one. People typically find their way to this industry as an outgrowth of their primary profession. Many grow to love this field and they learn to forge a rewarding career.

So part of our strategy is to continuously develop new programs to keep members interested and coming back. For example, our Contemporary Issues in Community Association Management series explores hot topics, and its focus changes every year. These are consistently among our most popular courses.


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2) Strategy Drives Design

KEVIN SAYS: We offer two formats, live and digital, with over 200 online courses. All of our content must be evidence-based, timely, relevant, and as I mentioned, aligned with recertification and licensure requirements. And because our members are busy medical practitioners, we aim to provide learning experiences that are innovative and engaging.

Currently, we’re building what we call the “core curriculum” for dermatologists. This isn’t required.

However, because our portfolio has grown organically, we know there are gaps. So we’re taking a step back to assess the content end-to-end and build a more complete, ideal curriculum.

JAKE SAYS: Our LMS includes more than 300 elearning courses and webinars, tagged by topic. You’ll find all kinds of topics from cloud computing and energy conservation to parliamentary procedure and service animals. Members are free to take any course that interests them, either for pure knowledge or for CE credits to earn or maintain a credential.

We’ve worked really hard to improve access to our learning content. We record live training on video to make it available through our LMS. Constantly adding fresh content keeps people coming back and keeps them interested.

Also, we encourage collaboration in our elearning courses, even though it’s an asynchronous learning experience. People engage at their own pace. But we embed specific questions about the course content and encourage learners to see what other learners have posted and respond. This pulls them into a little dialogue that we facilitate through our association’s discussion board.

3) Learning Paths Help (Or Not)

KEVIN SAYS: Our learners value self-service, so we offer courses on an a la carte basis. Since dermatologists have already completed prescribed learning as medical students and residents, our LMS catalog doesn’t include learning paths or levels, and we don’t pre-package credentials. Although members must meet requirements for total credits and topics, they want to find specific topics of interest within our environment as quickly as possible.

JAKE SAYS: We lean toward learning paths, but with some flexibility. Our learners appreciate a well-thought-out pre-developed curriculum and guided path, so we provide a framework that specifies required courses, exams and completion timeframes. But many members prefer to complete courses at their own pace, so we offer the flexibility to do that in the classroom or online. They’re also free to take any courses in any order.

4) Content: Less is More

KEVIN SAYS: Our members want microlearning. One of our most popular activities is what we call the “Question of the Week.” We host a one-question quiz in the LMS and send an email blast linking back to the quiz. Respondents earn a quarter-hour CME credit. So if they participate once a week over 52 weeks, that adds up to some serious credit.

JAKE SAYS: We’re also looking at developing shorter, bite-sized content because our courses typically are 1 or 2-day training experiences. That’s a real challenge when people want to watch a 5-second YouTube video and move on to the next thing.

5) Digital Credentials = Work In Progress

KEVIN SAYS: Because our members have completed formal education and training as physicians, they don’t require digital badges or credentials from us to advance their careers. However, they are very conscious of their colleagues. What are their peers doing? What topics are they interested in? So I can see badging that embeds game logic, leaderboards or other feedback at an activity level, so peer behaviors are more visible.

JAKE SAYS: Although new members are joining our organization all the time, many have been with us for decades. They’ve taken most or all of our courses, they’re committed to our mission, they’ve followed our education track and they’ve earned all of our credentials. Many long-time members take pride, for example, in being among the first 20 people to earn a credential that thousands now hold.

We don’t currently offer digital badging, but our credentialing program could translate to this format. Digital badges could be a great way to recognize online all our members who’ve invested years of hard work at significant expense to earn certification.

6) Choose Learning Systems Wisely

KEVIN SAYS: Our learning technology stack has three main components: LMS, AMS and CMS. Our LMS (Crowd Wisdom) gave us a platform to advance our digital activities.

Before that, we were kind of doing piecemeal on our CMS, but the LMS is tailor-made for digital learning activities. We use Aptify AMS as the source of record and we use our own shopping cart in our CMS.

JAKE SAYS:  Our LMS (also Crowd Wisdom) has been key for us as a platform to host and sell our education products. It’s the centerpiece, and our learning business pretty much revolves around our learning management system. Once that was in place, it opened a whole new world of possibilities for us. We’ve been using the same platform for seven or eight years and never looked back. We also leverage a social component that helps us reach out and engage our members to make our online courses successful.

In addition, we use an AMS (Abila NetForum), which is fully integrated with the LMS for both single sign-on and the ability to pass exam scores and credit information back and forth. This helps create a real transcript that our learners can access and use in real time.

Our technology stack also involves working with a lot of third-party vendors, including elearning developers, course manual producers, and more.

Bottom line, technology has allowed us to expand the reach of our education programs, so we can generate more revenue, increase our membership and deliver more high-quality training than ever.

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7) When Pricing, Lead With Value

KEVIN SAYS: Most of our digital content is offered free to members as a benefit with their dues. It’s a fundamental part of our mission – education, advocacy and research. However, we do charge for select premium activities.

JAKE SAYS:  Our approach is a bit different. In our industry, we strongly believe education has value and it’s okay for members to pay for education the same way they budget for other essential services.

But that said, we always offer discounts to members over non-members, so we set the expectation that you’ll save in the long run by joining our organization. The numbers prove that this strategy is working. For example, most registrants for our 200-level series and higher are CAI members.

We’re also experimenting with bundling, especially for conference content, so those who don’t attend live sessions can purchase recordings at a discount. We actually give conference attendees access to recordings at no additional cost. But those who don’t attend can pay for it.

8) Metrics Matter: Quantify Your Success

KEVIN SAYS: It’s important to continuously improve your user experience. That requires enough of the right kind of data from your LMS. You can create great content, but if users can’t easily access it when and how they need it – mobile, desktop, tablet, WiFi or no WiFi – then you’re efforts as educators are wasted. Finding and removing roadblocks is critical, and admin-level LMS data is the way to pinpoint and improve those issues.

JAKE SAYS: We measure results in several ways. For example, when we launched our first online course 10 years ago, about a dozen people registered each month. Now, our community manager track serves more than 6000 learners a year, and nearly half of our learning population consumes some training online.

Also a decade ago, our members had to wait for training until an instructor-led course came to their city. Now with online courses available 24x7x365, our numbers prove that members are earning credentials at a much faster pace.

What’s more, our salary survey reveals that individuals who earn our organization’s highest designations are also among the highest-paid professionals in our industry. There’s a direct correlation.


No doubt about it, these guys are way ahead of the curve in understanding how to bring together all the essentials for continuing education excellence. So where is your association on this curve? If you’re ready to move to the next level, I invite you to learn more.

Thanks for reading!

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is Founder, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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