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The Best Systems for Professional Development

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This article has been co-authored by MCI talents Ashley Dowling and Brian Reach, Managers, Association Services for MCI USA. The authors have disclosed that they have no vested interests in any of the named branded services mentioned in this blog.

Regardless of the size of the member association, professional development is often touted as a benefit of membership. How do you optimize opportunities for members and keep track of everything? This blog provides insights from two individuals supporting professional development, Brian Reach and Ashley Dowling, managers of Continuing Education (CE)/Professional Development (PD) for associations.

What comprehensive solutions have you identified and implemented in your role?
AD: One association I worked with offered a variety of live, self-study, and webinars for professional development hours for multiple types of certifications, but no means of tracking hours earned for members. Using an Association Management System (AMS), I was able to review, develop, and implement all in-house within Abila NetForumPro to allow members and non-members to log in and keep track of their purchases and hours earned from various types of studies.

BR: One association was using two expensive third-party solutions – one for webinar hosting, recording, and archiving; another for online courses – both were being underutilized and were not fully compliant with accreditation requirements.  I reached out to a web developer, and together we developed an in-house platform to house our entire learning library, which has more features than the online course solution, and the one-time cost of implementation was about 15% of the annual cost of the third-party solution.  We also moved to a webinar vendor that doesn’t charge per-event or per-person (just an annual fee), so we are now able to put together unlimited courses and webinars, for just the cost of the webinar platform.  The changes saved the association $30,000/year immediately – but the feedback is that the system seems upgraded, since it’s now integrated with our database, and we’re starting to plan more courses – and seeing an uptick in purchases for existing ones!

AD: Via the website Content Management System (CMS), WordPress, we were able to then promote professional development offerings to non-members who could purchase lesson plans by offering previews. We also highlighted any upcoming live offerings on the front page that would integrate the signups into the AMS via Single Sign On, identifying our learners and expanding that pool.

BR: The former third-party solutions didn’t integrate with our AMS, and had their own logins and passwords on their own website.  Now that we’ve integrated with our AMS through Single Sign On with the Drupal side of our website, and linked the courses to their respective products, users are getting used to visiting the association’s website, remembering their logins and passwords, noticing when it’s time to renew or update their contact information (without calling us!), and browsing around for other offerings to take advantage of.  So far it’s been a win-win situation all around, and we haven’t even activated the other credit types that the system can handle!

What systems and/or approaches do you recommend for professional development programs?

BR: A few things:

  1. For webinars, GoToWebinar is a no-brainer – unlimited webinars for one fee, free recordings, and a reliable connection every time.
  2. FluidReview/SurveyMonkey Apply is an incredible tool for interacting between applicants, reviewers, and staff – if you need to manage submission and review workflows (abstract proposals, award nominations, certification applications, etc). Definitely include them when looking for those sorts of solutions – and take advantage of their development hours, because they can build out workflows much faster than any of us!
  3. Everything. You. Can.
  4. Always look into developing something in-house as an option (within your existing website platform, within your database’s extensions, etc). Don’t pay for bells and whistles you aren’t ready to use.
  5. Always look for a way to keep people going to your website for everything; avoid sending your users to different logins or websites for each of your systems (this helps with metrics, too)!
  6. Get stakeholders together and map out your ideal workflow with as much detail as possible – not what you’re doing now, and not what might work with the solutions you’re working out – the ideal user experience. Once you have it written down, expect your solution(s) to make it happen in exchange for your business (or at least try to find ways to get there), and never accept an ambiguous answer.

AD: Brian covers a lot of good points and I agree with his suggestions! My tips:

  1. Maintain one centralized place that is always updated; often, this is within the LMS, AMS, or even an Access database.
  2. Develop a policies and procedures manual and keep it updated so anyone who is new can walk in and understand your approaches and solutions.
  3. Cost and time is often a defining factor so you may need to branch out for third-party solutions such as offering your PD, collecting evaluations, issuing certificates, etc. Review the cost-benefit vs. the expectations of your members when they’re seeking PD hours. A conference app that allows learners to evaluate sessions right after they complete the conference may be affordable if you have an across the board increase in registration costs or certification fees.

Any tips for continuing education/professional development programs that you can share?

AD: Always continue to evaluate your solutions and get input from your content matter experts, such as the PD committee, reviewers, and learners and use the data to fine-tune.

BR: Due diligence requires the exploration and, often, implementation of third-party solutions. Give detailed, case-specific scenarios and ask how their tool would work with what you have, and don’t put pen to paper until you’re able to give things a test-drive!

AD: Talk to your credentialing agencies to review solutions that still adheres to guidelines. They are there not only to accredit your organization/members, but they’re invested in the growth of certificants.

BR: Review your existing third-party solutions. If the full functionality isn’t harnessed, or overlapping functionality exists with other solutions being used (and paid for!), the waste and confusion can quickly outweigh the benefit.  Always include an internal option when comparing solutions.

BR: I agree entirely with Ashley on both of her tips.  Conduct a thorough review of your solutions periodically to make sure everything still fits; technology is constantly improving, as are accreditation regulations – expect things to change, and don’t renew contracts unless your needs are being met!  Also, be shameless about asking for discounts. J

AD: Chiming in about discounts, be sure to check out TechSoup, which gives non-profit organizations discounted prices for software and services that could be of benefit to your PD and other needs!

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