aLearning: A Trail Guide for Association Learning After working with e-Learning in the corporate (and sometimes government) setting for so long, it is easy to forget that not everyone in the learning business is online. Associations are one example, and a new book aims to help those trainers and educators in this area who suddenly find themselves called upon to move their curricula into electronic form.

Ellen Behrens is the author, and she explains her motivation this way:

“After working on the development side of e-Learning, I took a job about five years ago in the association world, and successfully guided the association into the realm of e-Learning. I discovered some startling things along the way – for example, the idea of a truly stand-alone, asynchronous course was generally a foreign one to most associations, which have been primarily relying on Webinars and instructor-led online courses (of the type enabled by Blackboard, iCohere, and similar platforms).

Even before we launched our first stand-alone, asynchronous course, my phone started ringing – other association learning leaders wanted to know what we'd done, how we accomplished it (everything from LMS issues to budgets to vendor selections to content matching ... you name it, they had questions). Before long, I found myself wishing I had a book I could just hand them – something specific to the issues association learning leaders face, not something written for corporations that readers would have to adapt to their needs. Association execs have little time and need a lot of help – according to recent association-specific surveys, most organizations that need this sort of guidance have small staff sizes and small e-Learning budgets.

So I wrote the book I wished I had when I started”.

Ms. Behrens has written a stunning success, in my opinion. aLearning provides a complete guide to developing and implementing a strategy for e-Learning in associations.

The content

Before I outline the content, let me note two features that I found particularly helpful. First, Behrens illustrates her step-by-step process instructions with some outstanding and well-written case studies. These may appear fictitious, but you will probably get the idea that they are not entirely hypothetical. They bring to the process clarity that is sadly lacking in many “instructional design” tomes.

I should add, as a sub-note to this, that I really liked the thoroughness of the book. Right at the very beginning, where others might have jumped right into technospeak, Behrens takes the time to define terms: the various key terms and references, the modalities (synchronous, asynchronous, Webinar, and so on), and even a quick explanation of how the modalities match to learner experience. And she gives a great initial general answer to everyone’s top question: “How long does it take to develop one of these e-Learning things?”

Second, the book includes “Activities” at regular intervals throughout the book. These bullets, questions, and checklists help the reader find ways to apply the information to the reader’s own situation. Again, these are particularly well done, and would be a great model for other writers on instructional design and development.

The content and structure of aLearning take their shape from Behrens’ observation that, while books on e-Learning written for the corporate world are helpful, association curriculum developers face some unusual challenges:

  • The learners are individuals who pay dues to belong to the association;
  • The learners expect high-quality, targeted professional development opportunities that they can access for free (or for the lowest possible fee);
  • The developers must rely on volunteer Subject Matter Experts (SMEs);
  • The developers must balance the needs of their membership constituencies; and
  • It’s really, really hard to get funding in the non-profit sector.

I had to smile when I read Behrens’ final warning to her readers: “Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you know what it takes to offer successful face-to-face programs that you’ll know how to implement effective aLearning programs. They are as different from each other as urban street walking is from trekking Mt. Everest.”

What the book does not cover

As noted earlier, this is primarily a book about strategy required to move face-to-face instructor-led training to the online environment. Therefore, it does not address:

  • Adult learning theory
  • Instructional design theory
  • Behavioral theory
  • Development tips and tricks (for example, when and how to use graphics or which brand-name authoring tools to use)
  • In-depth information about online communities, blogs, wikis, and other social media
  • Legal advice
  • The nuts and bolts of certification

What the book does cover

Describing all of the content, or even the table of contents, would make this a very long review. Here is a thumbnail overview of how the book helps the reader create a strategy that makes sense, and in terms that will not turn off association executives when seeking support:

  • Only covers as much technology as is required, but this includes explanation of some key terms: LMS, CMS, LCMS, SaaS, and SCORM
  • Explains how to make sure that the strategy matches the association’s mission, vision, and values
  • Explains how (and why) to conduct a needs assessment
  • Explains how (and why) to do a competitive analysis
  • Explains how to map content to the best delivery method
  • Provides guidelines to organizing the project and the team, in the context of the association environment
  • Addresses marketing the program to association members
  • Describes the method for making the “build or buy” decision: should you outsource development?
  • Reviews the standard custom-content development method
  • Explains how to prepare a strong RFP (Request for Proposal), how to evaluate the responses, and the vendor selection process
  • Gives help on working with vendors


This is one of the best-executed books I have seen in some time on the topic of learning strategy. In my opinion, every association should have a copy of this to refer to during creation or revision of the professional development curriculum.

It will be particularly useful to associations with small staffs (and no professional development staff). It will also be useful to vendors who have little or no experience or insight into the challenges faced by associations as they adopt e-Learning. Finally, consultants on the staff of associations, who are more and more often asked to help their member organizations create a comprehensive learning strategy that includes online and social media components, should definitely have a copy of this.

Incidentally, probably 80% of the book will be a godsend to anyone who is experienced in developing traditional instructor-led curricula, but who is new to e-Learning (or who is standing trembling at the threshold). So just because you aren’t an association staff person, don’t assume that you wouldn’t get any value out of Behrens’ book.

Bibliographic Information

Behrens, Ellen. (2009) aLearning: A Trail Guide for Association Learning. DeWitt, MI: aLearning Press. 270 pages.

Available, as PDF file or as a physical book, from