As the associate director for professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), Jack Coursen “indulges his passion for the business of education” while working to create impactful educational programs. And in his ongoing pursuit to find efficient ways to meet member needs while delivering a positive bottom line, Jack recently led an initiative to add a series of new microlearning opportunities to ASHA’s current offerings.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with Jack about the why and the what of ASHA’s microlearning initiative, the business model behind it, and practical take-aways for anyone interested in implementing something similar. They also discuss the state of learning in general, including his perspective on smile sheets and what he sees as the current threats and opportunities for learning businesses.
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[03:17] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa interviews Jack Coursen, associate director for professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
[05:45] – Introduction to Jack and some additional information about his background and work at ASHA.
Jack is part of a non-dues revenue team that is expected to deliver a positive bottom line. Because of that, they tend to make decisions looking through the lens of both member impact and non-dues revenue potential. They offer courses for ASHA CEUs and it’s a highly competitive landscape so they try to assume an entrepreneurial business approach.
They also offer a variety of products including place-based events, online conferences, Webinars, journal products, eLearning, multimedia, and online courses. Within these categories, in terms of how they run the business, Jack says they intentionally try to push the envelope – or rather indulge their passion for the business of education – by trying to do interesting things.
[09:45] – Would you give us a brief history of the why and the what of ASHA’s microlearning? What are you doing with microlearning, and why did you want to get into it?
Jack starts with the why and attributes it to this idea that nobody has any time. So the competitive landscape for a person’s attention is so dramatically different now. Some early ideas he had on microlearning were more about content in smaller bites—so taking a big course and chopping it up. But he found this never seemed to address the problem or do anything good for the learner.
Jack notes that some organizations have done some really interesting things in the space, and references what the American Board of Anesthesiology is doing with their MOCA Minute program (check out our interview with Dr. Deborah Culley about this to learn more). He admits he’s a little bit of an opportunity cost junkie so whenever he looks at new ideas or innovating approaches, just coming up with a great solution isn’t really sufficient—the solution also has to be very efficient and repeatable so that the level of effort that it takes sets a return on investment that looks favorable to their other courses and approaches.
Jack talks about how he’s been thinking about this over the past couple of years and that it peaked when he attended Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) 2018 when he decided to come up with a framework (and he actually posted the concept as an attendee). He also had a moment looking at a presentation that had really practical examples, which inspired him to take action and really clarify the concept and create a framework. And he and his team ended up creating the new product shortly after that.
[14:24] – In terms of the what, Jack shares that the courses are mainly about doing something at work and they comprise of six five-minute activities. The speaker exposes the learner to a new way of doing something that helps them solve a relevant challenge (five minutes) – and then shows a bunch of examples of how that’s done (another five minutes).
After viewing these, the learner should be ready to try the idea on their own, with some scaffolding. The rest of the course is really the learner taking the lead—so making a plan, enacting the plan, reflecting on how it went, and considering how they’re going to integrate this new method/approach in their practice going forward. All of this is 30 minutes (the minimum increment for ASHA CEUs) and Jack says this concept is so modular that it’s turned out to be very versatile.
[16:14] – Do you have a sense of how the courses are primarily being used? Are you getting more uptake on them as short courses or as the bundle?
Because they just came out, Jack admits it’s probably a little too soon to know to know for sure. However, his early observations in terms of member impact are that it seems they do fill a real niche. They’ve also received really strong, positive reactions from their speakers. In terms of revenue, it’s early to tell but they’re over 50 enrollments.
His sense is that this type of approach in CE is so different than the norm and that it will take a while to take hold. Ultimately, he thinks it does fill a niche and could be a great tool in their overall toolbox to use in various different ways.
[19:02] – I know that for many folks, thinking about microlearning monetization has been a hurdle—that is, will learners value something so small enough to pay for it? Most of the business models I’ve seen rely on a subscription (so microlearning is part of set of educational products buyers get access to) or a member benefit model or something that ties the microlearning to something bigger. Can you talk about how you went about thinking about a business model and setting prices?
Jack shares that they tend to price around how many hours of CE content is included and with some notions of their costs (direct and staff time). Because of that, it was essential that the idea itself be easy and inexpensive to execute so that microcourses could be competitively priced.
This structure allowed them to easily create four courses at once and although they each stand on their own, they are also complementary which made it possible to bundle them together at a discount. Note that the member pricing is $20/30-minute microcourse or $72/4-course bundle.
[21:44] – You mentioned that 30 minutes is the smallest increment at which someone can earn an ASHA CEU. Is this the first time that you are working right at that threshold or have you had other offerings at that lowest accepted length?
Jack says they’ve done it quite a bit before at 30 minutes beginning with a real push in 2015 through a series of free courses—and he notes he could talk share quite a bit about that experience if there were more time.
[23:36] – Is microlearning in danger of becoming just another “check the box” trend? Are we in danger of everyone tackling microlearning because they think they’re supposed to, and we end up with a lot of worthless short content clogging up LMSes and inboxes?
Jack says we probably are and that with most novel concepts, the vast majority of early implementation aren’t always the best. As with anything, you really need to ask yourself why—why are we doing this, what need are we satisfying, and is this specific approach truly the best way to satisfy that need?
[25:26] – What are some of the lessons you’ve taken away from the experience of rolling out this first series of microcourses? Any words of caution or encouragement you might have for other organizations considering getting into microlearning?
Jack recommends stealing good ideas that seem like they’d be a perfect fit for your member. He points out that the great thing about the association community is that for the most part, we’re not really competing directly with each other so there’s not a ton of incentive to be overly protective of a process. It kind of behooves us all to share more, not just so we can collectively benefit, but even so someone can take what you’ve done and adapt it—and then come up with a better version to share back around.
[26:43] – What results is ASHA after with this microlearning, and how are you measuring and evaluating to gauge your impact and success?
Jack says that he’s really hoping to get people to do stuff because that’s when effective learning happens. As far as measuring, it always goes back to what kind of an impact it’s having (both breadth and quality) and the non-dues revenue. As far as measuring impact, they look at the number of people, the degree of satisfaction they have within the experience, and whether or not they come back based on that.
[28:22] – What are your next steps for microlearning? Do you have other bundles of these microcourses in production already or are you waiting to see before you take next steps?
Jack says they now have a speaker lined up to develop a new series with content tailored to a different major practice setting, but it’s going to happen next year. Fundamentally, the answer is to create more of it and then continue to assess the impact.
[29:12] – Moving away from your microlearning initiative, I want to give you a chance to rant a bit, as I know you’re critical of some of the “myth busting” going on in learning and development. I’m hoping you’ll specifically share your perspective on evaluations and your beef with the bad rap smile sheets have gotten.
Jack shares that he’s all about myth-busting—such as what is now being said about people’s attention spans. And if anybody genuinely thinks that a smile sheet measures learning, that’s not right. He points out that we don’t really have a great, easy, or practical option to measure real learning in continuing education. But he says smile sheets can measure customer satisfaction and we’re not just in learning, we’re in the business of learning and that business piece is pretty important.
Their learners are their members and also customers so gauging whether or not they liked something is extremely important. And it’s arguably just as important as whether or not they learned something. When it comes to CE, if people don’t like it, they probably aren’t learning anything either. Jack puts learning preferences in the exact same category because people don’t retain knowledge better by reading, hearing, seeing, or touching. But nonetheless, they may think they do and they certainly may have a distinct preference for the way they consume information.
So it’s not about measuring learning, it’s about that customer preference, which is pretty important to be aware of in a learning business. Jack says they are getting satisfaction surveys back from learners taking the microcourses and although he doesn’t think that’s measuring their learning, it does let them know how satisfied they were with the experience/product.
[32:35] – What’s going on in learning these days that most excites you?
Jack reveals that the next big thing at ASHA is something they’ve been working on for about two years and should go live Summer 2019—but he won’t spoil the surprise and say exactly what that is. Generally speaking, he’s been really passionate lately about data analytics and user research, which are two key elements of personalization. He talks about an experience he had that highlights why, when looking at new technology, you really need to focus on how it solves an actual problem. If you adopt it just because it’s the new thing, it probably won’t be effective.
For the past couple of years, Jack shares that he’s been stuck with the notion that lifelong learning (and maybe CE in general) is nonsense. He feels that lifelong learning is something we really want to say is important and we think of ourselves favorably about, but we’re not really doing anything tangible about it.
A lot of CE is about checking a box and most of us aren’t even close to measuring whether actual learning occurs, much less measuring whether or not that education is leading to better member client outcomes. So the surprise that he eluded to coming this summer is really their first step to changing the larger picture—and it could be profoundly empowering for members and associations as it creates a new framework to gain progress towards making a measurable difference.
[36:08] – What do you see as the major opportunities and threats today for ASHA specifically and learning businesses in general?
Jack always comes back to same thing, which for ASHA is that the competition is from for-profit groups, something that will likely always be a major challenge for them. He also thinks that how technology might impact the profession of their members is another big one. He worries that associations may be way behind in terms of looking for ways to ensure that our members’ profession thrives with new technology in the years ahead.
On the flipside, the greatest opportunities he sees lie with the brand equity that most associations still have. So we have this amazing opportunity where we can be the ones to develop practical solutions that genuinely address on-the-ground challenges and really empower our members. And a lot of members ideally hope to get that from us and fundamentally the trust members have in us is reliant on our execution to fulfill that promise.
[37:48] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Jack admits he doesn’t think he doesn’t do nearly as much as he thinks he should do in terms of his own professional development but he’s extremely passionate about his work. Although he can’t pick a specific learning experience, he says he thrives most within environments that foster serendipitous inspiration. And he talks about how he gets this a lot at ASHA and through ongoing opportunities with his team who really inspire him.
[41:27] – How to connect with Jack and/or learn more about ASHA:
- Email: JCoursen@asha.org
[42:55] – Wrap-Up
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