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5 Education TRENDS That Should Worry Professional Associations (And What to Do About Them)

Once the singular source for cutting-edge knowledge in their arenas, today’s associations are battling membership loss and declining sponsorship revenues. To cope, associations must reach above and beyond member expectations.

Paying close attention—and adapting to—these trends will help keep associations relevant and able to meet their members’ needs.

1. Professionals are looking beyond associations for learning opportunities

Decades ago, associations monopolized the continuing education landscape, giving their members resources that they literally couldn’t get anywhere else.

But with internet educational opportunities increasing, associations are no longer the exclusive providers of professional learning and have strong, fast-growing, alternative education competitors (i.e., Udemy, General Assembly, and Codecademy), who are upping the ante—improving their course quality, for example—and presenting themselves as the no-brainer option for non-university students. In a survey of more than 1,000 associations conducted by YourMembership, 58% of associations responded that they don’t feel technologically prepared to meet member expectations. It’s becoming crucial for associations to close that gap.

In short, learners now expect a range of learning choices to maintain their professional advantage.

2. Open badges & micro-credentials are growing in importance.

With traditional academic degrees on the decline, partially due to cost and the current $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, the demand for continuing education is high. But, rather than working long-term towards certifications, students are increasingly collecting “badges” and “nano-degrees” for micro activities such as Data Analyst, Android Developer, Innovator, and Business Strategy. These informal learning programs allow organizations to verify expertise and students to easily share their skills.

A survey of 1,900 organizations conducted by Extreme Networks shows that 66% of organizations consider badges to have a positive impact and 65% believe that digital badging will grow in the future.

Mozilla foundation has led the charge with their Open Badge initiative spurring inspiration for education heavyweight Pearson to launch its own badging initiative, Acclaim.

3. The fundamental model of professional membership is in question.

For a long time, membership has been the basis of association success, but this is changing. Demographics and social capital have had a huge impact on the traditional member profile. According to Jim McNeil, chief executive of SmithBucklin’s Business + Trade Industry Trade Practice, the most important priority for association leadership is thinking about “how will we make this organization better?” That question should be answered by defining what “better” means for the association’s members and key stakeholders.

Today, it’s easy to form online, private groups based on professional interests for free—on social media sites, and otherwise. This means that forward-thinking associations are rethinking their core “value propositions,” and asking themselves questions like, “What value do we offer our members?” and, “How can we maintain the new member’s engagement?”

As the new model evolves, smart associations will build their solution around training and development, actively helping their members acquire the most relevant, critical skills for their professions.

4. Technology is changing the way professionals want to consume education.

Prospective members are becoming more selective in the associations they join and expect to know the value of their membership.

It’s getting harder and harder for members to justify the expense and time needed to travel to educational events where they receive hard copy, printed versions of your association resources. Members are looking for on-demand, 24/7 access to the educational content and career services available to them when they want them. Online courses available on mobile devices and e-book technology are attractive value-adds for on-the-go professionals.

At the same time, remote educators are starting to ask questions about what delivery strategies they can offer to help manage the current constraints around price, capacity, and higher-education needs.

To keep up with changing delivery methods, associations would be wise to look beyond their traditional structures for disseminating information and remember that there is a proven and increased need for educational strategies that utilize mobile technologies.

5. Professionals expect personalized learning pathways, not just blocks of pre-set CE credit hours.

The way information is shared has exploded over the past 20 years, and knowledge can now be pursued by anyone with an Internet connection—not just an elite few. In this environment, learners are empowered to pursue new skills and knowledge in a personalized way and are no longer satisfied with “seat time” and the credit hour tally previously used in continuing education learning.

According to a survey of more than 1,000 association members, only 33% of members believe they receive personalized content as part of their membership. When content is personalized they’re 35% more likely to feel extremely connected. How can you personalize the member experience? Content based on the member’s interests and recommendations for continuing educations based on their needs, rank high.

Any way you look at it, in the current, fast-changing educational landscape, professional associations on the cutting edge need to analyze the above trends within the context of their core value proposition and start planning for how to adapt to the challenges posed.


Ashish Rangneke is the CEO & Co-Founder at BenchPrep. Benchprep is one of the leading learning and assessment delivery platforms in the association world. This article was originally posted on BenchPrep’s blog.

You can test drive BenchPrep for yourself by attending this year’s Learnapalooza. Learnapalooza is a three-day conference/summit in Washington, DC, designed specifically for association and nonprofit education/training staff. The summit will be comprised of 11 expert-led hour-long sessions related to all aspects of member-focused education programs (both online and in person education). Register today!

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