ASAE and the Center 2006: Upgrading member learning

I had planned to go to one of the M&E sessions Sunday afternoon, but after meeting Kathi Edwards, the learning evangelist, at the bloggercon and hearing some of her ideas, I decided to attend a session she and Jill McCrory were giving called "Coach to First-Class: Great Ideas to Upgrade Member Learning" instead.

What I loved about this session: The airline theme was terrific. They handed out "boarding passes" as we walked in and grabbed seats at the rounds (not theater or classroom seating!). Airline-related music was playing in the background (think, Leaving on a Jet Plane), and seats were numbered like airline seats, except we all got aisles, or at least, lots of leg room, and we were allowed to bring in liquids. Jill also did the introduction as a typical flight attendant announcement, which was pretty funny. We even got a toy at the end, but I'll get to that later.

Kathi started off by explaining how we're in an era of unprecidented change, and not just in the realm of technology. "If your learning opportunities don't give learners what they need, how they need it, they don't mean anything. Not even CE programs," she said. "Kids are learning in teams from the beginning now; these will be your members in a few years. Even Gens X and Y learn differently." Social media are playing a big factor in changing the ways people learn, which happens now on-demand and in short bursts. "They want what they need, when they need it," she said. "High quality performance depends on perpetual learning now, and rapid change is a fact of life."

Jill added that an annual needs assessment isn't enough these days to determine what learners really need. Do mini focus groups, call members randomly and ask them what they need. And don't just ask for topics on evaluations. Instead, ask "I could do my job more effectively if I knew about ______."

Also, check out where else people are getting their learning, and what they offer that you don't. Can you partner with these other resources in some way?

Jill asked us to come up with some examples of "coach" versus "first-class" learning experiences. Oh, the coach versions just flew: Death by PowerPoint, too much info in too short a time, unprepared panels, bad speakers, and canned presentations, among other things. First class, while a little harder to come up with, included focused, interactive sessions that use adult learning techniques, produce learner outcomes, and give you something to walk away with were among the things that came up, along with a congruity between what's promised and what's delivered (a pet peeve of mine).

Know your learners needs, and coach your speakers, Kathi said. "Make sure they have quality learning objectives—what the audience should know or be able to do when they leave. And keep the number of objectives reasonable." She suggested helping speakers to define what it is they need to know, and give them everything they need to know to get a "5" on the evaluation. This isn't just the content knowledge, but also the enthusiasm for their topic that will make them an engaging speaker (click here to download a speaker prep checklist on Kathi's Web site). Another tip: Ask speakers what their best learning experience was, so they can see what made it so effective and incorporate aspects of that experience into their own sessions.

Kathi also stressed the importance of letting learners know what they can expect. A low-tech way to engage learners ahead of time would be providing an article written by the speaker, or give learners a simple self-assessment they can take to set their learning goals. You also can use tech tools like blogs and wikis, and ask members to run them for you (such as ASAE and The Center's BostonBlog did).

And give them something to take away with them. One audience member said her organization provided a list of five "pearls" from each speaker on the afternoon of each day of the event. Kathi added to build your program synergistically, so that each topic builds on the previous topic, and all topics support the overall theme of the conference. And require that each session contain some interactive activity. "If a speaker says, 'I don't have time for an activity,' that's a sign that he's trying to convey too much information in the time allotted."

And you should vary the pace and format regularly: Adults need a change of pace every seven minutes—we learned that from the timing of TV commercials. And keep it fun, learning doesn't have to be serious. The presenters gave an example of making racecars out of veggies for a produce marketing association, which the winners raced at the opening session. For those who say their attendees are too uptight for that sort of thing, they offered an example of a group of PhDs she once asked to work in small teams to make up their own lyrics to popular songs. "Every person in every group played and had fun with it. Don't make assumptions about what people will and will not do," she said.

They then had us pair off and share a couple of things we want to improve, while the other person offered suggestions, then to switch roles. My partner had some great ideas I never would have thought of.

They ended by having us write down three things we were going to do differently on the back of a sheet of paper with a design on the front. Then they showed us how to fold up the paper to make it into a neat-looking jet. While they didn't want us to let them fly in the meeting room, you can let people exchange their goals by flying them, or have them take it home as a reminder of what they plan to do. Other, not quite as fun options for encouraging people to implement what they learned are to have people fill out learning contracts, then mail them to the learners six weeks later, do followup sessions where people share what they did as a result of the learning, encourage reflective questions, and provide take-home tips.

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