Smithsonian Dives Deeper Into Online Learning. What Now for Associations?

The Smithsonian Institution announced earlier this week that it will venture further into online education. What can associations take from the decision and apply to their own learning opportunities? And should they be concerned about the additional competition?

As I was reading The Washington Post online earlier this week, I came across this headline: “Smithsonian Makes Deal to Offer Online Courses.” Of course, it piqued my interest being that it falls under the umbrella of topics I cover in this blog.

There’s no pressure, there’s no homework, there’s no exams.

Reading more of the article drew even more connections between what Smithsonian is attempting to do and what associations strive to do with their meetings and education offerings. Here are some more details about the Smithsonian’s courses:

  • At least 12 multimedia lectures will be developed over the next 10 years, all based on a licensing agreement with education group The Great Courses. The group will pay the Smithsonian a percentage of its sales, though financial terms were not disclosed.
  • The courses will be targeted toward college-educated lifelong learners at a fee of $89.95 for a standard 24-lecture series.
  • The courses—the first four of which will be released this fall—will be taught by experts in the field and university professors, as well as some of the Smithsonian’s own employees. For instance, the first course, “Experiencing America,” will be taught by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art, and culture.
  • The courses will give learners a different kind of experience. “There’s no pressure, there’s no homework, there’s no exams—unlike a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] where you have to show up on Tuesdays at 11:00,” said Edward Leon, chief brand officer at The Great Courses.
  • This is not the Smithsonian’s first time licensing its content. According to the Post, Smithsonian Enterprises, the for-profit arm of the museum complex, has similar deals with Showtime Networks and database provider Cengage Learning to broaden its reach and generate new revenue. “It’s all Smithsonian content — just another way to get it out there,” said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

The Smithsonian’s strategy is definitely something for association learning and meeting teams to have on their radars as they plan upcoming events and education offerings. First off, associations will face additional competition as more well-known institutions like the Smithsonian offer content taught by well-known experts to an audience that many associations typically engage and market to: college-educated lifelong learners. How will your organization make its offerings stand out among a new set of competitors that may have a highly recognized name and brand, and how will it keep these online learning opportunities from eroding its onsite meeting attendance?

Second, associations may need to consider the pricing structure of their learning opportunities and events. In this example, learners pay $90 for 24 lectures—that’s $3.75 a lecture. And, unfortunately, that’s a price point most associations will be unable to match. In light of this, associations will need to do a better job of communicating and illustrating to potential attendees what a higher price point will get them.

However, it’s not all bad news: Associations that are quick to action and step up their game in this new learning landscape can see positive results. Take a page from what the Smithsonian’s lecture series is doing, and try offering your attendees learning-on-the-go options. What does this look like? It means that people can learn at their own pace, on their own time, on their own device.

The National Automatic Merchandising Association is offering this ability through its new NAMA Learning Center. For $99, all NAMA members can receive 12 hours of education from its 2014 NAMA OneShow—whether or not they attended in person. “[Sessions] provide at least 60 minutes of best practices presented by leading experts in the field and can be viewed on mobile devices so you can continue your professional development from virtually anywhere in the world,” said Director of Education/Certification Joann DeNardis in a statement.

Associations also may want to consider licensing content from their meetings to other groups and learning providers. This may not only expand the association’s brand and reach, as well as potentially grow membership, but also generate additional nondues revenue. One example: the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Best of ASCO Meetings program. Each year, a panel of ASCO experts selects abstracts from the association’s annual meeting and licenses the program to oncology organizations in the United States and around the world.

Has your association been successful in licensing its meetings or education content or offering on-the-go learning opportunities? Share your story in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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