Why the Association Education Model Needs an Overhaul

Associations need to stop putting the experts first and the audience second. It’s time to throw away the traditional expert-driven education model and implement a participant-centered one.

Earlier this week I was out at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs attending the 2013 Great Ideas Conference. (In case you weren’t there or want to relive the experience, here are a few articles that recap some of the learning that took place.)

In three of the sessions I attended, the speakers acknowledged that they (the subject-matter experts who are on stage or lead-presenting a breakout session) are not the only people who would (or should) provide attendees with knowledge. In fact, each said that attendees often learn and engage best by speaking to one another.

In the Opening General Session, speaker Sally Hogshead said, “Relationships with [fellow] members are more important than the membership itself … Don’t you want your association to be known for the experiences you deliver?” And in the Closing General Session, Simon T. Bailey said that meetings should offer everyone the opportunity to share their expertise—not just the so-called experts—and suggested that planners set aside time at all meetings to allow this to happen.

Why not work on creating learning environments where those ‘aha moments’ are more likely to happen during sessions?

But it was a session in between these two that really got me thinking about the power of attendee participation. In Jeff Hurt’s Monday afternoon session “Next Generation Learning: Participant-Centered Education Rules!,” he challenged associations to move their education away from an outdated expert-centered model and toward a participant-centered one.

Hurt took his own advice during the session: In the first 15 minutes, we were asked to participate four times. Activities included sharing the one superpower you’d like to have with your tablemates and writing down what you knew about participant-based learning—and then discussing what you wrote with your table.

Hurt said the reason associations continue to take an expert-centered approach is because it’s the way we were taught in school and because it’s the way it’s always been done. Another big reason: Associations don’t want to lose control. But as many association learning professionals know, meeting attendees often say the best conversations and learning take place in the hallways between sessions. If that’s the case, why not work on creating learning environments where those “aha moments” are more likely to happen during sessions?

Well, as a tablemate suggested during a follow-up discussion, the reason could be this: It’s harder to plan and execute participant-centered education than it is to give an expert the floor and let them talk for X amount of time. Hurt hit on this as well, saying a big part of moving toward participant-based learning is advising your subject-matter experts about how to change their presentation styles. “But how often do we actually train our presenters?” he said.

Hurt says that learning is not a passive process and that scientific research shows that the “one who does the work, does the learning.” He says association learning should be more like construction, in that attendees need to be able to actively construct their own meaning of it. “Raw materials of information are transformed and tested as the audience builds their own understanding,” he said.

Hurt did acknowledge that participant-based learning has its limits. The healthcare field and other technical industries may find it difficult to introduce. But one place he said it could work: online. He suggested enabling the chat feature to allow the presenter to ask attendees fun questions throughout web-based sessions to keep them engaged.

I’m curious to hear how other organizations are experimenting with participant-based learning and what barriers they’ve faced along the way. Please share in the comments. (And if you want to check out more of Hurt’s presentation, here’s a link to the PowerPoint.)


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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