Reviving an Online Curriculum

The American Association for Respiratory Care relaunched its online-education portfolio as AARC University several years ago, breathing new life into the program and reengaging members.

When the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) set out to improve online education for its members — health-care professionals specializing in the treatment of cardiopulmonary disorders — it took a hard look at the limitations of its existing portals. One of the biggest problems was a cumbersome login-and-purchase process that had users shuttling between two websites to earn their continuing-education credits.

“The old ‘system’ was just a unique website with a link to the e-commerce system. Some courses were authenticated with member login, but each purchase was separate,” said Shawna Strickland, Ph.D., RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, AE-C, FAARC, associate executive director of education for AARC. “Each of our courses had a different website and potentially different navigation. Neither of the websites offered a search function, which made it cumbersome for members to find the courses most relevant to them.”

Strickland’s team knew it had to up its game — and fast — and so decided to relaunch the association’s fragmented courses as AARC University, a one-stop shop for member education.


The first step for AARC was to consolidate all of its courses into one learning management system (LMS), which helped create a more organic experience both for members and on the back end. AARC went with Freestone, an LMS managed by Abila, which specializes in software for fund accounting and membership management for associations, nonprofits, and government agencies. “It’s really about everything being centralized in one location,” said Amelia Glynn, Abila’s association marketing manager. “From start to finish, the learner can browse the front-end store, which is AARC University, and search for courses that they are interested in or that help them meet their mandated continuing-education requirements by their profession.”

Strickland describes the initial move to Freestone as “100 percent from scratch.” She said: “We did have to figure out how the information was going to flow from Freestone to our database and vice versa. Our team had to learn new processes and identify new scenarios for troubleshooting, which is expected with integrating new programs, but we found our way pretty quickly.”


The robust new portal caught on quickly with members. AARC sold about 20,000 courses during the university’s freshman year. By 2014, that number had climbed to 31,000. “I expected some growth,” Strickland said, “but nothing like this!”

She used the latest AARC University course, launched in February 2016, as an example of how the university-storefront experience has improved engagement. “In the past we averaged about 10 purchases of this course every month,” Strickland said. “Since its transition to AARC University, we now average 49 purchases of that course per month.” Strickland points to ease of use of AARC University’s search function and a “familiar environment that helps people feel more comfortable with purchasing more courses” as the key factors driving
this growth.

Freestone not only simplifies the search-and-purchase process for members, but helps them find the most relevant courses for their areas of specialization. “We help our members earn credits for specialty credentials, so our platform channels are by specialty-topic area,” Strickland said. “For example, if I am a pulmonary function technology [PFT] professional and I need 15 credits to keep my credential, I can log in to the PFT channel and see all of the courses that qualify.”


AARC looks to its members for help refining AARC University’s course offerings, and Strickland advises any organization looking to beef up its education arm to do the same. “Make sure you know what your customers really want,” she said. “You can have great offerings, but if they aren’t relevant or needed, no one will purchase.”

Strickland’s team also uses member feedback to tailor the formats of courses they offer to ensure that users can fit online education into their busy schedules. “Some people want complex, multichapter, all-inclusive courses, while others want small bites of information,” she said. “Having a variety appeases more members.”

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone is digital editor of Convene.