This post speculates about the future of continuing education programs (CEP) after a brief review of past CEPs.  This is part of a series analyzing what the potential new normal as the current crisis recedes.  The first post includes links to the others in the series.

The Old Normal of Continuing Professional Education

In the olden days, i.e., up until a few months ago, virtually all continuing education programs, trainings, symposia, and conferences were held in person.  Fuddy-duddies like me were very skeptical that one could conduct a good training without continuous face-to-face interaction.  Occasionally, a speaker would appear by video, but the technology often was unreliable and glitchy.  The speakers and audience usually couldn’t interact very well.  Programs generally weren’t recorded, so people had to attend in person to see and hear the interaction.  Speakers often provided written materials but they were no substitute for actually participating.

CEPs were a lot like TV shows in days of yore.  Are you old enough to remember the phrase “appointment TV”?  If you weren’t in front of the TV at the scheduled time to watch a program, you were out of luck.  There were only three commercial TV networks, which produced all the programming.  Of course, there have been more than three providers of CEPs, but there were a limited number of organizations that could produce major programs due to the logistics, expense, and geographical constraints.

Some people produced video CEPs, like mediate.com’s videos, but this probably constituted only a tiny proportion of the educational content that professionals received.

The Evolving New Normal

This crisis has come at a “good” time in terms of technological capabilities for producing and disseminating CEPs.  If the crisis occurred five or ten years ago, society would not have been able to manage as well as we have (as pitiful as that has been in the US and many parts of the world).

There are a lot of convenient video apps, and professionals have been forced to learn how to use them.  App developers have a great incentive to work out bugs and improve their systems.  In a reasonably short time, people will take video communication for granted just as they have done with email, smart phones, and all manner of gizmos that have become routine parts of our lives.

There are a lot of benefits from the new world of CEPs on video.  Consumers save huge amounts of time and money by watching from their homes or offices rather than traveling distances long and short.  Many programs will be posted online so that people can watch them at their convenience, much as they now stream programs on a plethora of TV services.  This permits people to pause, rewind, and fast forward videos, and some programs even include transcriptions.

CEP producers also will benefit from the new normal.  Programs that take place solely on video save the time and money required to mount a program in a physical space.  Rather than charging higher prices to cover the costs of space rental, food, etc., producers can produce programs with little overhead and pass the savings along to consumers by providing programs for free or at low cost.  Instead of being limited to audiences within a particular geographic area, programs can be shared worldwide.

Even at this early stage of the new normal, we are seeing the flowering of a wide variety of programs as illustrated in a recent post.  Some are one-shot programs, either as webinars primarily focusing on speakers or as discussions with active participation by the audience.  Some are series of presentations spaced out over time and others are virtual conferences mimicking in-person conferences like the recent conference of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution.

The comfort with video meetings can help professionals hold periodic meetings of reflective practice groups – again with great efficiency and broad geographic reach.  The series of calls organized by Stephanie Blondell (Pepperdine) illustrates the potential for academics to operate such groups.  The calls originated to help ADR clinic faculty cope with the sudden loss of cases due to the crisis.  It is being reincarnated, with the tentative name of the Law School ADR New Normal Think Tank, to help faculty deal with a wide range of challenges.

Some organizations will collect programs online that consumers can download at will.  There may be services that develop searchable collections of programs, much like Netflix et al.

There are some foreseeable downsides to the new world of continuing education.  A major function of in-person events is to promote personal interactions that are hard to duplicate by video.  I have been going to the Section conferences for almost 20 years and I look forward to seeing long-time friends, making new ones, and sometimes doing a little “business,” planning for future activities.  I miss all the hugs and even just making eye contact and waving to friends as we pass in the hall, scurrying to the next session.  Virtual substitutes won’t adequately satisfy those needs for many of us.

The new normal can create challenges and opportunities for organizations like the Section that rely on CEPs to generate revenue and maintain membership support.  As the technology continues to improve, it will be easy for more people and organizations to produce programs.  This can increase choice and quality, but competition also creates financial pressure on professional organizations with substantial overhead and that rely on program revenue to support their work.

Future in-person events are less likely to attract people who attend primarily for the educational content and/or continuing education credits.  To survive, professional organizations may need to substantially revise their business models to accommodate smaller in-person gatherings – and some organizations may shrivel or die.  Hopefully, shrewd leaders will figure out efficient and sustainable ways to provide programs that fulfill professionals’ interpersonal needs.