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Training Courses and Certification Make Dollars and Sense for This Digital Age

“WWD, The Economist Launch Education Offerings,” read last week’s MediaPost headline. These were just the latest media companies to jump on the online education/certification bandwagon. But smaller publishers may be leading the charge. I spoke with Lesley Ellen Harris of Copyrightlaws.com and Bob Coleman of Coleman Report to see what’s driving their success with online training courses.

“For our training, we do 8-10 weeks of hour-long courses, but we break each one up into 5 or 6 10-12 minute segments,” Coleman told me, speaking about their successful Coleman online training courses for the small business lender niche. They do four seasonal semesters; the winter quarter started on Feb. 1.

“We give reading assignments, homework, credit underwriting [assignments]—‘You drive down your street and see a commercial building, maybe a veterinarian or a standalone restaurant. What do you think it’s worth?’ We take questions—used to do that during office hours, but now that’s evolved into the daily web show [Coleman Report Live] where questions are put up on the screen.” Not only does this give people live interaction with experts, but it also provides marketing for the training courses, which cost between $695 and $1,295. They had 440 people watching yesterday for the 1 pm show.

When it comes to media companies and publishers diversifying revenue, online training and certification programs continue to trend up. Once started, they’re relatively easy to manage—especially as the platforms get better—can give new roles to your staff, reach a big audience, not require a huge investment and thus can be successfully carried out by companies small and big. Some other recent examples:

WWD teamed with the Parsons School of Design and the education platform Yellowbrick to produce Fashion Business Essentials—an online course delving into industry trends. The course provides 15 hours of instruction and project time in five modules. Students completing the program receive a noncredit Completion Certificate from Parsons. They are also using the courses to bring more diverse voices into the ranks.

The Economist has launched The Economist Executive Education, bringing “the rigor and intelligence we apply to our journalism to the growing world of online education,” says Bob Cohn, president of the global brand. Created by Economist journalists, it was developed in collaboration with GetSmarter, a brand of global education technology firm 2U, Inc. (Great to see the content team involved in that way, especially with events mostly sidelined.)

AM&P Network member Money-Media has their own ThinkTank website that allows users to earn continuing education credits toward a CFP designation (Chartered Financial Planner) by reading content on their website. “Our system is unique because we don’t require the user to answer test questions at the end,” Dan Fink, Money-Media managing director, said in an email. “We worked with the CFP Board to allow us to eliminate test questions, and they agreed because our technology utilizes time-on-page, along with other user actions (such as mouse movement). As a result, we can ensure users only get credit for active reading time and can’t game the system.”

Copyrightlaws.com offers a variety of online courses—many geared for about 12 weeks—that students can self-pace on. They range from 21 Virtual Ways to Build Copyright Awareness in Your Library or Organization ($199) to Licensing Digital Content ($749) to the Copyright Leadership Certificate ($1,499). “All the assignments are directly related to issues,” Lesley Ellen Harris told me. “We began using Thinkific in the fall as an experiment, and we have moved most of our courses to Thinkific now. All students love it as do I. It offers just enough features to customize a bit but is simple both for trainers and students.”

Harris calls Thinkific “a one-stop shop for teaching. Students get through the materials at their own pace, supplemented by an online discussion that I moderate,” she said. “I’ve learned that a full hour doesn’t work. You have to end at 10 to an hour now or people leave. Plus you can’t just talk for 50 minutes, so we have breakout rooms and I’ll get questions [that people submitted in advance] going. We’ll do polls in Zoom, maybe a true-false or multiple choice. Those are simple to set up. I don’t even have to be in the breakout room. If they’re having a good discussion, I don’t want to disrupt them, but I don’t give them that long either.”

As these examples show, these courses are not the bar exam or CPA test—the key is the learning, the engagement and the dollars, not making it too hard to pass. For Copyrightlaws.com, there’s a final assignment and then 20 questions and a digital certificate. Coleman asks students to write a credit memo or take an open-book exam of 100 questions; pass and they receive a nice plaque in the mail.

Components for Coleman courses—sessions get released every Tuesday—include training videos, reading assignments, quizzes and a Q&A session. Bob Coleman is in the process of refilming all their course videos for the next semester. They will change up a bit, he said. “Last time I did one whole course, and [the other instructor] did one. But now we’re going to cross-pollinate, do some interviews with experts, engage in dialogue—instead of just a lecture.”

Even in companies that are consumer-oriented, the B2B bent is obvious. After their first six-week course, “The New Global Order: How Politics, Business and Technology are Changing,” starts in May, The Economist’s second course will focus on business writing.