Case Study: Creating an Online Course for the History Leadership Institute

Figure 1. The HLI Class of 2018 with George McDaniel (center), one of forty experts that facilitate sessions in the History Leadership Institute.

The History Leadership Institute (formerly known as the Seminar for Historical Administration) is undergoing a significant change to better serve mid-career professionals, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because I’ve been devoting a good portion of my time to this effort over the last year, I wanted to share a behind-the-scenes look at how HLI launched a new program to navigate this unusual situation.

The makings of this new program actually started a couple years ago. In 2018, HLI began implementing a plan to address years of declining applications. The solution wasn’t “more marketing” but clarifying its purpose and becoming more aware of the needs and interests of the professionals that participate AND the organizations that sponsor them. Secondly, it needed organizational stability. Most of the original sponsors had dropped out over the decades except for the American Association for State and Local History, which willingly accepted HLI into its existing suite of professional development offerings.

In 2019, we reformatted the Seminar from a three-week residential program to a four-week hybrid (two weeks online and two weeks in-person) to better accommodate the needs of most working professionals. We also shifted the program from November 2019 to June 2020 to gain access to better housing at a nearby university and serve professionals who were unable to participate in the fall (FYI, given the size and breadth of the US, there seems to be no ideal time to offer a residential program but a survey showed that summer was more popular than fall).

As a result, applications to the Seminar doubled but the pandemic overturned everyone’s plans—Associates, Facilitators, Indiana Historical Society (our host organization), and IUPUI (who was providing housing). By late March, we reluctantly had to cancel the Seminar for June 2020 but our conceptual plan for HLI included an online program (see Figure 2). But yikes, we hadn’t yet fully developed our plans for an online program except that it would probably be something short and focused, such as a webinar or video around a single topic.

Figure 2. The conceptual plan for the History Leadership Institute in 2020. Programs in green currently exist, yellow are in development, and others are under consideration.

Although that format is still a possibility, we went into an entirely different direction when we explored the situation. We knew we couldn’t simply put the Seminar online—the content and methods/formats have to be compatible to be most meaningful and effective for the participants (that’s one of the biggest challenges I noticed as organizations scrambled to put their activities online). So we imagined how we might build it from the ground up. We reviewed the interests and motivations of mid-career professionals in history organizations; examined what other professional development programs were offering online; and carefully crafted our outcomes. It’s an approach borrowed from the best practices in marketing, teaching, and business (anyone notice Michael Porter’s Five Forces at work?).

In early April, I proposed an online course that would:

  • provide professional development opportunities in a format that is more convenient for mid-career professionals working in history organizations.
  • encourage a supportive collegial learning environment.
  • strengthen the field of state and local history by introducing forward-thinking theories and practices of leadership and management.
  • satisfy ongoing demand for professional development in advanced topics.
  • capture more of the market of mid-career professionals in history organizations who are unable or unwilling to participate in other HLI offerings, such as the Seminar and Forum, due to travel, cost, or format.

Furthermore, the online course leveraged the skills and resources of AASLH, following the principle of building on your strengths. It has offered online courses for more than five years and recently adopted Elevate, a learning management system for nonprofits and associations.

The outcomes suggested a format that would include readings, discussion, presentation, application, and reflection led by an expert in the field. This creates an in-depth experience that mid-career professionals crave but is often difficult to find, especially if you’re working in a small or medium-sized organization.

Figure 3. The typical month-long module for a topic in the HLI Online Course as proposed in April 2020.

I proposed a series of six inter-connected modules over six months coordinated by me. Each module would comprise similar activities organized in a standard manner (see Figure 3). I also developed a budget that included staff time—a key ingredient to ensure the program’s financial sustainability. Our Advisors were very supportive, although there were some questions about a six-month course. I reduced it to three months—which I appreciated when we were deep into the course and it felt like it was dragging.

In August 2020, we launched the online course as a pilot offered exclusively to the applicants of the Seminar. Fifteen professionals participated from history organizations from across the country in varied positions, which gave us strong cohort. Randi Korn (Founding Director, RK&A), Larry Yerdon (President and CEO, Strawbery Banke Museum), and Trevor Jones (Executive Director and CEO, History Nebraska) facilitated sessions on intentional practice, systems thinking, and implementation, providing different perspectives on improving organizational performance.

Evaluations showed it was a successful program and as a result, AASLH is offering it again as “Strengthening Your Organization’s Impact” starting on January 25, except it will be on a tighter schedule to improve momentum. Twentyone people have registered and I look forward to meeting them next week. In August, I hope to launch online course on improving personal performance using a very similar planning process.

1 thought on “Case Study: Creating an Online Course for the History Leadership Institute

  1. Michelle Zupan

    So happy to hear this!!! I always wanted to take the course, but being away from the farm for 2 weeks was simply NOT feasible. This is a welcome change.


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