There’s no arguing that the adult learning environment has changed dramatically. With the answer to almost any question a quick Google search away, people don’t need to go to a meeting to learn—at least, not the traditional one-way information exchange model of meeting that is still the most-offered option. Today’s professionals need learning more than ever as they compete in an increasingly competency-based marketplace, and they’re learning on their own through gamified, infotainment-based, just-in-time experiences.
As Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO of the digital credentialing company Credly said at the American Society of Association Executives’ Xperience Design Project this summer, “Offering people access to new skills is just the beginning. Helping connect those skills to opportunities is the real story.”
This means that today’s association needs to structure its conferences and other educational programs into “learning events” to maximize the advantages of in-person learning, help participants develop and demonstrate in-demand competencies, and connect each learning event to an ongoing, year-round learning pathway.
Here are six elements that can help you get there.
1. Content in Context. How can you “flip” the experience so attendees are not just coming for content, but for ways to engage with peers and experts to make sense of that content, and learn how they can use it for their specific needs? Think about context in the full sense of the word. It can be the physical location, the emotional ambiance, the length of sessions, or even the continuum of participants’ expectation before, during, and after the event, Finkelstein said.
What do you need to create the right context for the learning you want to see happen? Is a 60-minute session going to be the right length of time, or would your purpose be better served in shorter learning bursts, or longer, more in-depth workshops?
Do you need to meet in a ballroom or standard breakout space, or is there another type of environment that would better foster those connections? Why not take conference sessions into a cafeteria and have lunch, Finkelstein said.
If you offer online courses, think about what you can do at a conference to extend that learning, perhaps by offering to organize meetups for online participants.
The structure of the event also falls under context, he said. “If you know how it ends, you tune out. When something is unscripted, you can end up with an experience that no one—not even the organizers—know how it will end.” While that thought undoubtedly is supremely uncomfortable for meeting planners, who usually want to tightly control every aspect of their meetings, that element of surprise can keep participants’ attention up to the final moments.
One suggestion he had for those with willing and able presenters: Create a competition in which you provide slides the presenters haven’t seen before and have them give a talk extemporaneously.
Some of the ways ASAE put the XDP content into context was by providing a wide variety of seating options for the small-group discussions, and giving each person their own “playbook”—and providing time in the opening to have each person customize their book by creating their own XDP logo to display on its cover.
2. Crowdsourcing and co-creating. Think about how you can use polling and participant involvement to create bottom-up programming decisions. Maybe you can ask your potential participants to nominate speakers, or to vote on which speakers they want to see at the meeting, he suggested. Ask participants to rotate through topic tables. Hold “office hours” where experts rotate through small groups to kick off brainstorming and small group discussion. And don’t ignore what your participants are saying on social media—how can you tap into that “hive mind”?
3. Curation. Just as museums tell a story through the way they arrange their collections, so can meeting planners tell their learning story through how they arrange their content and meeting elements. Think about the lens through which your meeting is curated—is it from the perspective of an association’s executive director or board? Through the lens of a millennial member?
At XDP, “it was the people themselves who were curated to make sure each table had a good mix,” Finkelstein said. Participants worked on interactive exercises at tables that were pre-arranged to ensure each had a mix of marketing, technology, and content-related association executives, along with industry partners, in a 6:3 executive-to-partner ratio. Each table also had a trained volunteer facilitator to keep the conversation on track.
4. Careers and competencies. “We need to get away from seat time and focus instead on competencies gained, and connect those competencies to the learners’ careers,” said Finkelstein. “If you can assess it, you’re doing a vital service for your participants.” Associations need to shift toward competency-based education.
ASAE focused on five meeting-related competencies—location, learning, marketing, technology, and experience—which were held in five zones in a ballroom segmented in a hub-and-spoke format radiating from a central stage.
5. Credit. Fact: More than 19 million adults have earned a certificate, including 6.4 million who have no education post-high school. And associations are the largest source of credentials outside of the government, said Finkelstein.
Whether you offer a formal certificate or digital credentials or just a verbal acknowledgement when someone makes an insightful comment, credit is key—and it’s underutilized and undervalued at most events, he said. “Offering credit also can go a long way toward building loyalty.” Today’s affordable, portable, and just-in-time digital badges and microcredentials offer new opportunities to augment what you’re already doing with formal certifications, and can unlock new programming, partnership, and learning model opportunities.
6. Choice. People have a lot of learning experiences to choose from—including whether to come to your event, and whether to stay once there. When you give them options so they can create an individualized learning pathway, you give them more reasons to choose your event.
At XDP, participants could choose who they wanted to make appointments with—there was no trade show, but there was a space for pre-arranged appointments to take place—and which of the five zones, or topic areas, they wanted to participate in on the first day of the conference.