Everyone’s talking about cohort-based learning. Andreessen Horowitz announced its investment in new cohort-based platform Maven, citing how the model leads to completion rates 10 times better than those of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
Maven and other cohort-based learning providers have emphasised the social, active nature of learning in their platforms, an enormous upgrade in user experience, as anyone who’s sat through a traditional corporate training video can attest.
The early days of online learning were all about consumption.
From the first recognised online programme at the Open University two decades ago through the heyday of MOOCs, educational content was passively consumed, largely by disengaged audiences.
Completion rates were abysmal. Over time, the interaction between learner and content did improve. But the active, social aspect of learning, the discussion, debates, and exchange of ideas emphasised elsewhere in modern pedagogy, was still conspicuously absent.
Today, work happens in teams. Yet when it comes to helping employees actually develop these essential team-based skills, most digital training hasn’t kept up. Training continues to be highly individual, with courses that present concepts and scenarios, but leave the difficult task of making these lessons relevant to today’s social working environment up to the learner.
The pandemic threw online learning’s failures into even starker relief. As everything moved online and heightened uncertainty and complexity further increased demand for soft skills and leadership at all levels of an organisation, digital solutions for helping employees develop these skills became crucial.
Enter cohort-based learning
Cohort-based learning solves this. Done right, cohorts result in a large community of engaged learners addressing real business problems, collectively, and developing knowledge and insights they can put into practice in their work right away.
And this model doesn’t just out-perform MOOCs; it also has advantages over in-person learning.
Online teams learning together end up making connections, problem-solving, and collaborating at a scale and efficiency that old offsite training models could never allow for. The result? More leaders, with deeper knowledge, better equipped for the challenges they face.
While there have been successful non-cohort online learning experiments in subjects like math and coding, for example, the dynamic, nuanced, and deeply social skillset of the modern manager calls for learning that’s both dynamic and deeply social.
This may be part of the reason that while the market for online courses on technical skills is highly saturated, there are few quality digital alternatives for subjects like management, strategy, and the social sciences. These high contextual subjects demand discussion and debate for positive learning outcomes.
What does cohort-based learning done right look like?
Success is largely based on the design of the cohorts themselves, as well as the quality of the content within the programme.
First, the cohorts: they work best when made up of groups of 50–100 learners to prevent the volume of conversation from drowning out the meaning but still ensuring a diverse range of voices contributing.
Introducing end dates for modules and courses ensures a semi-synchronous experience learners engage with the ideas on their own schedule but more or less simultaneously.
The content is also key. Without great content, online interactions can quickly become virtual echo chambers.
While early online learning platforms touted their sheer mass of content, what really matters for creating great learning outcomes is quality.
Leaders don’t want a 'Netflix of learning' which puts too much burden on the user to browse through irrelevant information in search of the skills and capabilities they actually need. Insight-rich content with the most up-to-date best practices, featuring top practitioners, academics, and thinkers in a given field is the cornerstone for good discussion, excellent completion rates, and positive learning outcomes.
And let’s talk about those outcomes. Any L&D professional knows that calculating ROI on learning is a complex task.
Beyond hard numbers, one of the most important outcomes is the type of discussions users have. As learners begin to engage with the content and with each other, the conversation tends to move away from the learning itself and toward the immediate application of the learning to a current business problem.
Somebody will share a challenge they’re facing, and they’ll get responses from people who have dealt with similar obstacles. This sort of discussion encourages learners to make the subtle, creative, disparate connections leadership calls for today, and leads to insight-rich qualitative data that can transform an organisation.
When executed well, this is what cohort-based learning does best: completely close the space between learning and application. Suddenly, L&D is not simply filling skills gaps. Rather, it’s creating the mode and medium for solving business problems in real-time.
Tim Sarchet is co-founder and president of Nomadic