Cohort-based learning is the latest step in the evolution of e-learning. Unlike an open online course, cohort-based learning (CBL) gathers a limited number of learners to take part in a course with a set beginning and end.
As online learning grew, the main selling point to learners was the lack of a rigid schedule. Gone were the early morning lectures and stresses of finishing an assignment on time. This resulted in many learners who signed up for courses but rarely finished them. Enter the cohort.
What is cohort-based learning?
Chances are your own educational experience was cohort-based. Your classes started and ended at a specific time. You met with the same teachers (most of the time) and the same group of students for the duration of the classes. Your assignments all had the same deadlines and expectations.
Cohort-based learning consists of a group, or cohort, who goes through a course at the same time, even if everyone is still learning in the comfort of their own home. You determine how much of the course uses live versus pre-recorded material. In addition to lectures, you also give the cohort activities to complete individually or in small groups.
The MOOC doesn’t work for everyone
The alternative to cohort-based learning is self-paced learning. This type of course sells learners the convenience of learning on their own schedule. Instructors could record one course with many sections and sell it year-round with unlimited sign-ups.
The popularity of these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, grew as online learning became a real option. This popularity led to more affordable content and knowledge. Instructors and creators pushed out these courses but found little profit despite strong acceptance.
Learners have also become disillusioned with the average MOOC. Thanks to YouTube and TikTok, learners can get at least the basics of any topic without spending any money. When they sign up for a MOOC that covers the same information, the courses tend to go unfinished. In fact, self-paced courses tend to have a completion rate of 15% or lower.
How does cohort-based learning benefit creators?
CBL courses benefit not only the learners but also the content creators. When the user experience improves, creators also benefit. By using cohort-based learning, you enjoy the following benefits:
Cohort-based learning enables you to offer learners what they’ve been missing: connection. Learners feel connected to you as the instructor, their peers, the material and walk away with a better experience.
Some learning platforms showcase the instructors behind their courses. But in most cases, learners begin MOOCs without knowing anything about their instructor. With a CBL course, you can establish credibility and show potential learners you’re the best person to teach them.
You’ve already learned most learners fail to complete MOOCs because of a lack of urgency in the course. In contrast, cohort-based learning courses add back deadlines and goals. You can lay out deadlines, assignments, and hourly expectations before learners commit to your course.
The biggest difference you will notice when you go from teaching a self-paced course to a CBL course is the community you build. Your cohort will give instant feedback and questions and link to each other on social media platforms like LinkedIn or Instagram.
This community will discuss your course and, in turn, sell its benefits to its own network. This free advertising will form the next cohort for your course, where the cycle can continue. And when you create new courses, you will have direct access to the community you’ve built.
How does cohort-based learning work?
As an online creator, you can use its benefits to build your own community. Time to get started!
Plan your course
The key to a good course is for your personality as the instructor to shine through. Base the content on your personal experiences to ensure it’s a unique course. And be sure to organize the modules in ways that make sense to you instead of relying on what others have done.
Set clear goals for your course
Determine what you want learners to get out of each section of your course. Make real milestones along the way and up to the finish line. Make this last moment memorable, don’t end the course on a whimper.
Find a learning platform
Now that you have a clear vision for the course and its goals, it’s time to start building the course. The right learning management system (LMS) will help you here. You should be able to create a course complete with slides, embedded video and audio, and other media you may need.
Adding video, guest speakers and opening up the course to active question rounds (Q&A) will keep your cohort engaged. Your LMS will help you keep everything organized and working seamlessly.
Schedule your content
Because CBL courses use deadlines, you need the ability to release modules at specific points of the course. Using an LMS, you have the ability to create modules or content and schedule when the cohort gains access to it. This is made possible through drip content, which allows you to release a new module once a week, for example. Learners will access it at the same time, so they won’t be able to skip ahead and just focus on the newest topic.
You can record the explanation of an assignment or release your interview with an industry expert ahead of the course. Then you can add them to your course and your cohort will receive notifications when these are available.
If you’re also planning to host live sessions, know that public speaking requires practice. Take time to practice your modules before it’s time to speak to your cohort. Make notes for yourself on the points you have to hit along with nudges to anecdotes and stories you want to interject during the session. This way, you don’t find yourself staring into the sky mid-session, struggling to find a story from a former client on the spot.
Remember that one of the benefits of cohort-based learning courses is building community. This doesn’t just happen, you have to make it possible. Take time to mention the importance of learners relying on others to answer questions they struggle with in between sessions.
Get learners to speak to each other and collaborate. You can use the LMS tools such as forums, groups, messaging and chat to keep the conversation going between sessions and even during sessions. For example, once a new module is released, learners can start going through the content and also access a forum moderated by you, in which you can answer their questions or encourage them to discuss amongst themselves. In this way, the conversation is saved and learners can go back to it whenever they need to.
Gamify your course
As an instructor, you understand how gamification gets people excited. Build on that excitement and use badges and points in your course. You can create a ranking showing how the cohort stacks up and drive them to keep “playing.”
Learners should have a real sense of accomplishment upon finishing your course. Include completion certificates and make mention of them as you near the end of the course. Get your cohort excited for the day they receive their certificate and encourage them to share with their network.
In the online space, cohort-based learning wasn’t always a reality and MOOCs became the standard. As the e-learning industry evolved, it became clear that pre-recorded courses with no real deadlines were not right for everyone.
You can create a successful cohort-based learning experience with some planning and the right LMS. Your courses can create a community of active learners. This community will support your efforts and spread the word.
JC Gonzalez is a writer and lifelong learning advocate. With over 20 years of experience across different industries, he writes about edtech, professional development, entrepreneurship, and more. When he’s not writing, he’s with his family exploring Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @jg_los_angeles.