Cohort-Based Online Courses: The Solution to Boring Lectures & Virtual Fatigue

You heard it here first: associations with cohort-based online courses will dominate their market and provide the most effective, transformational educational experience to professionals in their industry. Yup, that’s a bold statement but the more we learn about this course concept, the more it makes sense as a signature educational offering.

Everyone is tired of staring at screens, yet this passive experience is the default for countless online courses, webinars, videos, and session recordings. If you rather offer a captivating learning experience that challenges people and motivates them to improve their lives, a cohort-based online course is the answer—and your differentiator in a crowded educational marketplace.

What is a cohort-based online course?

Much of what we know about cohort-based online courses comes from Wes Kao, the co-founder, along with Seth Godin, of the wildly successful altMBA program. This intensive four-week cohort-based online course teaches the ‘soft’ leadership and management skills traditionally taught in two-year MBA programs.

In a cohort-based course (CBC), like altMBA, a group (cohort) of learners advances through the content together. The course is a mix of live active learning and asynchronous learning. The cohort community and the participant’s accountability to that community are essential elements in this learning method. CBCs run from two to eight weeks and always have a fixed start and end date. The CBC formula is responsible for altMBA’s 96% completion rate compared to the typical MOOC completion rate of 6-7%.

cohort-based online courses

Why cohort-based online courses offer a more effective learning experience

Active learning. Raise your hand if you enjoy lectures more than any other learning experience. Right, I didn’t think so. Any type of back-and-forth discussion will hold a learner’s attention far better than a lecture. Cohort-based courses emphasize active, not passive, learning. Learning by doing allows the participant to apply new information during instruction by themselves and with their peers.

Learners make more progress when they switch between different modalities or topics during instruction—a method called ‘interleaving.’ Some of the active learning methods suggested by Kao include:

•    Asking for comments in the chat box
•    Asking learners to chime in
•    Playing a funny yet relevant video
•    Providing critique/feedback
•    ‘Passing’ the mic around
•    Putting a reflection statement or question on the screen
•    Analyzing a case study vs. their own situation
•    Switching from screen share to gallery view mode, and vice versa
•    Solo exercises
•    1:1 pairs
•    Small group discussions in breakout rooms
•    Role playing
•    Hands-on projects
•    Q&A time

Coaching. In the altMBA program, with its emphasis on students working through the course content together in cohorts, instead of instructors, one coach is assigned to every ten students. The coach guides students through the curriculum and is “an instigator, a moderator, a steady voice in the altMBA journey.”

Community. It takes more than willpower and motivation for busy professionals to stick with an online course. A feeling of community makes courses ‘stickier.’ The altMBA program uses Zoom so students can see each other during sessions and Slack for coach/student interactions.

Kao suggests “unbundling” the concept of community so you can understand which elements can be optimized for your course, such as:

•    Companionship: Participants learn alongside a group of peers who understand each other’s work routines, challenges, and aspirations.

•    Shared purpose: They all stand behind the mission of the association, believe in their industry/profession, are committed to personal and professional growth, and want to develop new competencies together.

•    Feeling seen and heard: Learners can let their guard down in their cohort. The course provides the psychological safety essential for a strong community.

•    Shared context: They have a shared vocabulary and professional values, and similar experiences.

•    Weird in the same way: Participants are okay with getting geeky and passionate about the topics they’re studying.

•    Access: Cohort members generously provide each other access to their knowledge, resources, and network.

•    Exclusivity, affiliation, and prestige: Kao said the application process “reveals what you need to know about the kind of people you want.” At altMBA, they look at the applicant’s track record, but also for a spirit of eagerness and a readiness to commit and work hard. CBCs are not easy, and that’s why they can transform participants. Graduates should be recognized for their accomplishment.

Kao said, “A well-designed experience makes people feel there's a vibrant community that's hard to find elsewhere.”

cohort-based online courses

Time bound. A CBC’s start and end dates force learners to focus on the experience—it won’t last long, so make the most of it.

Accountability. Part of the deal when joining a cohort is to show up, do your work, and be there for others. You’re all in it together.

Skin in the game. The price of the CBC must reflect its value. When learners make an investment in a program like this, they take it seriously. The price for the four-week altMBA is $4450.

Post-program support. Cohorts become tight during a CBC. They end up becoming friends who support each other beyond the program’s end. You could invite them to take another course together or form a peer advisory group.

Would an asynchronous cohort-based online course work?

One of the magical ingredients of a cohort-based online course is the fixed start and end time, which forces learners to go through the content together. However, you could stretch out the duration so learners have more flexibility within a block of time. The cohort meets at the scheduled start for a live meeting, then goes through the content individually on their own—a mix of pre-recorded modules, reading, and solo exercises. They get back together for active group learning during biweekly or monthly live meetings. In the interim, they have access to an online discussion forum where they could also do work together asynchronously.

Kao said the effort to create a CBC is front-loaded: 80% of your effort is spent on building the course, 20% is spent running or updating the course for future cohorts. “We didn’t get any of this right at first, but having a posture of rapid evolution helped us turn the workshop into what it is now.” You can imagine the many possibilities inherent in cohort-based online courses as long as you keep the focus on active learning, community, and peer accountability.

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