Tag Archives: continuing education

‘Virtual’ Moves to the Head of the Class

When it comes to education, there’s no such thing as one size fits all. That may seem obvious, because teaching spelling to a first grader is way different from teaching philosophy to a college student. 

The nuances increase when we start talking about continuing education. Professionals who are years into their careers have practical goals; they’re seeking knowledge to help them advance in their companies or do their current jobs better. Many of them will earn CE (continuing education) credits by completing a course. To say that they have a lot at stake is an understatement. Their ultimate success depends greatly on the quality of the teaching. 

So let’s talk about teaching industry professionals in a virtual environment, which has become necessary — even in vogue — in the era of COVID-19, and will likely increase in importance as the distributed workforce continues to grow.

Case in point: When the Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU) had to cancel its annual conference this year, staff restructured the entire course curriculum to an online format, and the “Summer of Accelerate” was born. It offers more than 100 courses, which are taken by thousands of independent insurance professionals tuning in from their dining rooms and home offices all over the country.

Based on our experience with our volunteer instructors, here are five tips for successful CE teaching in a virtual setting:

1. Move beyond the lesson plan

You have to prepare yourself differently to teach in a webinar format than in a classroom. Creating a good lesson plan will only get you so far. Yes, it’s always important to develop a solid outline of what you’re going to teach, but it’s also wise to consider that your students won’t be in the room with you. Instead, they’ll be at their computers and likely in their homes, where there are distractions. It may not be possible for them to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment on the spur of the moment. The technology for virtual learning is good, but not that advanced yet. Which leads to our second tip.

See also: Building a Virtual Insurer Post-COVID

2. Make it practical

There’s no time for theory in a virtual setting. You have one hour to transmit a lot of information. That’s it. When you only have one shot at teaching the material, you don’t have the luxury of wading into the “whys” and “wherefores” of what you’re doing, like the college professor who gets to lecture a class once a week for a whole semester. Create snippets of information that are actionable and repeatable. Give step-by-step instructions, and create your PowerPoint slide or live demo accordingly, like a YouTube how-to video.

3. Adapt your materials to the technology

You probably won’t be able to interact with your students, and there won’t be that lively discussion you can get in a classroom setting. But you can still inject your presentation with personality and relevance. For example, a good way to lead in to a demonstration is, “I had a student just last week sharing with me that she was able to save 15 minutes a day using this technique.” Or, “I got a note from Sara Jones this morning saying she hoped we would dive a little deeper into this topic.”

4. Recognize the objectives

The sooner CE instructors understand a fundamental difference from teaching in an academic environment, the better off everyone will be. In grade school, high school, college and graduate school, the school sets the objectives. By contrast, the desired outcome of continuing education is improved performance, so the student sets the objectives. They are driven by the student’s career aspirations and the firm’s pursuit of happier customers and financial targets. This is true regardless of the classroom setting — at a distance or in person.

5. Understand your students

Because your students drive the curriculum, it’s important to ask them in advance why they’ve chosen your session, as well as their expectations for the session and even career goals. A short survey will open up a world of insight. Remember, you will be imparting practical knowledge, not abstract theory. In our member organization of more than 20,000 insurance agencies, carriers, MGAs and compliance organizations, our “students” usually want to know more about a specific feature of their firm’s Vertafore management system and how to use it more effectively.

For example, numerous times a day a customer service representative, or CSR, needs to engage in a conversation with an insured about that person’s needs while working in the ACORD application. The CSR has to listen, answer questions, give advice, even empathize with the customer while simultaneously looking at a screen full of questions, digesting the information and completing a number of fields. That’s a skill that has to be taught and practiced. 

Rewind and Review

Before I begin those five steps of creating a successful CE course, I like to take a minute and go back to where it all starts: the customer. Remember, the customer doesn’t choose an agency because its CSR is an expert in the technology, but because he’s qualified to give sound advice.

The tool or technology can never become more important than the conversation with the customer.

A 4-Step Plan on Personal Development

Research documenting the benefits of lifelong learning for individuals and organizations is overwhelming. An EvoLLLution report spelled out these benefits in a survey of employers:

  • 96% said continuing education has a positive impact on job performance.
  • 78% said it factors into promotion and advancement on the job.
  • 87% said it affects compensation and salary.

You may need to ask your manager for investment in your professional development, but there is a good chance the conversation won’t be uncomfortable. Plenty of organizations place a high value on lifelong learning and have programs in place to support employees who want to grow their knowledge base— especially within our industry.

As you craft a pitch to pursue an insurance designation or another form of professional development, here’s our four-step guide to help you get started:

Step 1 – See what your company offers

At organizations that understand the value of continuing education, you may actually find yourself a step behind if you don’t take advantage of professional development opportunities. Check with human resources for a specific process for pursuing education before you approach your boss. You may find that HR has a learning and development program you hadn’t known about.

See also: How to Develop an Innovation Perspective  

Don’t forget about continuing education credits. Too often these credit hours are an afterthought that are more about checking a box before an imminent deadline than real professional growth—but they don’t have to be. There are lots of ways to make the time spent earning those credits worthwhile. If you’re required to complete continuing education, make part of your pitch explaining why the professional development you’re interested in will help to grow your skillset, being sure to mention that it will also count toward fulfilling your CE credit requirements.

Step 2 – Start small

It’s unreasonable to expect your organization to pay for an MBA after just a week on the job. Start pursuing professional development by asking for something that won’t require big changes or a significant financial commitment from your organization. Request approval to subscribe to a trade publication, to sign up for a webinar or to attend a local conference.

Professional development is a career-long process. As such, you should incorporate education into discussions with your supervisor as you’re discussing career goals, aligning education goals with your career objectives. For example, if you want to gain a strong foundation in general insurance concepts, talk about AINS as a way to build that knowledge base.

Step 3 – Prepare your pitch

Once you’ve successfully received buy-in for a few smaller investments in continuing education, you can plan a discussion for more significant professional development. Your conversation should be professional and compelling. A couple of tips:

  • Rehearse—Structure your pitch to be as convincing as possible and practice it until you’re able to present your case with confidence and passion.
  • Ask for approval with confidence—You know this professional development will benefit you and the organization. Work off the assumption that your boss agrees.
  • Choose the right time—In some organizations, a performance review is the right time to bring up professional development, but that’s not always the case. Choosing the right time and circumstances may increase your chances of gaining approval for the request.

Step 4 – Spell out the benefits

Professional development should go both ways—it should benefit the professional and the organization. Explain how a selected professional development opportunity will improve your skills and improve the organization.

Try to do this as specifically as possible: Instead of saying, “AINS will broaden my general insurance knowledge,” consider, instead, “AINS will allow me to be more knowledgeable on coverage options and how we differ from our competitors when I talk to customers.”

See also: Getting Back in Step With People’s Needs  

Here’s one particularly effective way to increase the benefits your organization will see from your professional development: offer to share your new knowledge with co-workers. Host a few lunches summarizing this knowledge or simply pass along articles, white papers or other materials. You won’t be able to share all of your knowledge, but your efforts will show your boss that you’re committed to maximizing the value your organization will get from your newfound know-how.

What tips have you used to get your boss to buy into your passion for lifelong learning? Tell us below!

The Sad State of Continuing Education

About 25 years ago, I attended an education committee meeting at the Southern Agents Conference in Atlanta. Continuing education (CE) had really just gotten started in some states. At this meeting, legendary insurance educator Bob Ross, of the Florida Big I, literally stood on his chair at the conference table and declared that mandatory CE would be the death of quality education. Has his prediction come true?

Four years ago, I posted the following on a LinkedIn discussion:

“A colleague related a recent experience to me last week. He went to one of the best known online insurance CE web sites and signed up for a course titled “Consumer Insurance.” He registered as a new user in the system, perused the course catalog, signed up for the course, skipped the course material, took the test, and earned 3 hours of CE credits. All in 16 minutes.

“He was also able to save the exam and email it to me (and, of course, anyone else taking the course). The test was loaded with vaguely worded questions and misspelled words and insurance terms (like “vessals” and “ordinance IN law” coverage). For some test questions, no right answer was listed or more than one answer was correct.

“In the spirit of one-upmanship, I told him about my experience 11 years ago when online CE was just getting started. I registered at a vendor’s web site and, like him, went straight to the test. I forget the exact total time required to register and take the 50-question test, but it was around a half hour I think and definitely less than an hour. The CE credit for this personal auto course? 25 HOURS. To quote the late Jack Paar, ‘I kid you not.’

“Afterward, I browsed the material, and it was full of general consumer-type information taken directly from the Insurance Information Institute. The hours of CE credit granted by the state DOI were based on a word count with complete disregard to the difficulty level.

“One thing I remember about this vendor was that it used what it called “Split Screen Technology.” What that meant was, while you were taking the test on one side of the screen, you could view the course content that went with that test question topic on the right side and browse for the answer to the question. Browsing for the answer was easy, given that the relevant information was highlighted.

“So where are we 11 years later? Apparently in the same boat, except that online insurance education is much more pervasive than it was then. You can get two years of CE credit for as little as $39.95. A great bargain if your interest is in regulatory compliance and not actually learning something that will benefit you, your agency and the consumers and businesses you serve….”

“Is there no accountability? Is there no desire to truly educate ourselves? Does anyone care? Is anyone listening?”

Flash forward to 2015….

An agent and friend I know – good agent, CE course instructor, upstanding guy – waited until the last minute to complete his biannual CE requirement last year. So he went online, found the course he wanted, signed up, went straight to the exam, and in 23 minutes had completed three hours of CE credits. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And, did I mention that the course was to comply with his state’s three-hour ETHICS requirement?

There is an online insurance forum with a discussion called, “Any Suggestions on Best Online CE Site?” It has comments such as:

“I use XXXXX.com. About $35 for 21 hours of credit. Takes a few hours (maybe two) to finish and is open book.”

My tongue-in-cheek response (recalling my agent friend’s experience a few months earlier) was, “I hope it wasn’t an ethics course!” The poster’s response:

“Huh? I guess you think each hour of CE should take an hour? Unless it’s a LIVE CE class… CE courses don’t take that long. I get unlimited CE from [provider’s name] for $39.95 per year… including a 16-hour Ethics CE course… that takes me about 15 minutes to complete. And, yes, they are open-book courses, too.”

On another discussion board, someone was touting a “Fast, Easy, and Affordable Continuing Education” website. No mention of the quality or relevance of the course material or whether there is any actual learning involved. The site proudly proclaims a passing ratio of “over 98%.” What would regulators do if the passing ratio of their licensing exams were more than 98%? I suspect they’d insist that the exams be made a little tougher. Is any exam a legitimate test of learning if the passing ratio approaches 100%? Then why do regulators allow online CE programs that take a half-hour to get 20 hours or more of CE credit and include exams with passing ratios near 100%? The web site in question has 91 reviews…NONE of them mention whether the reviewer actually learned anything.

(If you’re actually looking to learn, the best place to start looking is your own agent association, which has a vested interest in providing you with the best education possible.)

So what do you think? Am I just a grumpy old man? Should anything be done about the diploma mills that have proliferated? If so, what? If not, why not?