Online learning got a tremendous boost during the pandemic when virtual conferences and courses were the only option for education. But people who are looking at online education options now won’t be wowed or satisfied with the passive viewing experience they endured in many virtual conferences. The search for something better has led to the growing popularity of online cohort programs.
What is a cohort program?
A cohort-based course (CBC) combines online convenience with social learning and accountability. CBCs are even becoming a viable substitute for college in some fields. In these more affordable and intensive programs, participants focus on gaining the skills and knowledge they need to enter or advance in a career while building a network of peers and mentors.
In a CBC, a group (cohort) of learners progresses through the educational content together. The course is a mix of live and asynchronous learning, facilitated by instructors, coaches, and/or teaching assistants. The cohort community and the participant’s accountability to that community are essential elements in this social learning experience.
CBCs have fixed start and end dates, usually lasting about six or eight weeks. Some CBCs offer lifetime access to the program and/or an alumni networking group. Although in-person cohort programs are offered by business organizations in some cities, online cohort programs are more common.
In an earlier post, we explained why and how CBCs offer a superior learning experience. Because this experience often goes beyond the actual course, in this post, we’re using the phrase “cohort programs” (shortened to “cohorts”) instead of CBC.
New cohort programs are selling out all the time. Here are examples offering a range of benefits.
• Reforge: growth-focused programs for experienced professionals in marketing, product, data, and engineering
• Ascend: leadership program for aspiring and new women leaders
• 10K Designers: masterclass for becoming a UI/UX designer
• Building a Second Brain: personal knowledge management course
• Realm Academy: metaverse-based cohort program focused on Web3 and NTFs
The selling points of cohort programs
Intensive focus. Cohort programs are intense. Participants have a limited amount of time to learn what they need to get a job or advance in their career. Live instruction might take place twice a week instead of once with other events scheduled as well. Many cohort programs tell participants they can expect to dedicate at least five hours a week to the program.
Community. Cohort participants go through this experience with people who share similar goals and a commitment to their own personal and professional growth. The cohort becomes a personal advisory board. Participants also develop relationships with a network of alumni mentors, teaching assistants and/or coaches, instructors, and special VIP guests.
An engaged community like this is what every learner wants. They’re not just sitting home alone watching videos. They interact with this community a few times a week during scheduled live classes and other events, and on in the online community. The cohort doesn’t disband when the program is over. You will see these faces return in different capacities during future cohorts.
Accountability. The secret to a cohort program’s ROI is the accountability built into the design and culture of the cohort program. No slackers need apply. In the short timeframe of these programs, you have no other choice but to be accountable. You can’t disappoint your cohort; you’re all under pressure to master the content and produce results together.
Exclusivity. Many cohort programs are invitation-only or admission by application. Cohort programs are not for everyone. They self-select for those who have the level of commitment and grit to succeed, and will pay a premium for the high-touch experience. “The few, the proud”—they’re the ones who make it in these professional boot camps.
Quality. Cohort programs are the best programs in the catalog. They feature instructors and special guests who might not make time for other programs but do for these special cohort programs. Many people are involved in these programs—paid and volunteer—to help with instruction, mentoring, coaching, and educational and social events. It’s a whirlwind of activity, but it’s over before you know it—until the next cohort.
The features of a cohort program
Tiered pricing. Some cohort programs offer different levels of features and benefits. With the standard tier, participants get access to the community and its events until the program is over or for another six to twelve months. The premium tier provides access for an extended period or for a lifetime, along with perks like special VIP sessions.
Onboarding. Before the first live session, participants meet each other and the instructor, coaches, and/or teaching assistants during “welcome week.” During this orientation, learners meet individually with coaches to prepare for the program and get resources they need to succeed as an online learner.
Format. This intensive, time-limited program is a mix of live instruction with interactive group exercises along with asynchronous (on-demand) content and homework. Cohorts may also meet during the week for group projects.
Teaching assistants and/or coaches. Teaching assistants help the instructor facilitate the learning experience. Coaches serve a more holistic role by helping each participant get the most out of the experience and apply what they’re learning to their career.
Community. The online community hosts discussions required for coursework, free-for-all discussions related to program content, and purely social discussions. Cohort alumni or teaching assistants serve as community moderators.
Office hours. The instructor, coaches, and teaching assistants schedule office hours during which participants can get the help or advice they need.
Alumni mentors. Participants in previous cohorts return to help moderate community discussions and facilitate group or individual mentor sessions. Recordings of group sessions are made available to those who can’t attend. Mentors volunteer for these roles, however, you could compensate them by providing premier or lifetime access to the community and program events, or with promo credits for other education or events.
Special events. Cohort programs offer a variety of events where cohort participants meet alumni and industry experts.
• Biweekly small group conversations for participants and alumni at similar stages of their careers or for those interested in specific topics.
• Ask-Me-Anything sessions or fireside chats with special guests.
• Alumni masterminds where alumni continue the cohort experience with a new group of peers.
• Exclusive social events for participants and alumni, perhaps with special guests.
When designing a cohort program, look outside your industry for inspiration. Study competing programs so you can identify your differentiators. Put together an employer advisory board to provide guidance on content for required and desired competencies. Talk to successful professionals at different career stages about program features and benefits.
When you’re ready to market and promote your cohort program, go beyond prospective participants to the HR teams and C-suites of industry employers. Coaches, recruiters, and headhunters who focus on your industry or profession are another target audience to cultivate.
Cohorts elevate the reputation of your association’s education and career programs. The best always wants to associate with the best. If you dedicate resources to making cohorts the most special, transformative experience possible, alumni will become most enthusiastic program advocates.