How cohort-based learning is transforming online education


Shortly before 2010, the last revolutionary educational tool was the MOOC (mass open course online). This has made it possible for anyone in the world to take free courses online and set their own pace to complete the course.

Over time, the limitations and disadvantages of learning MOOCs have become apparent, and recent data has shown declining enrollment and low completion rates for these types of courses. To adapt, educational platforms have started offering students a more immersive experience known as cohort learning.

What is cohort learning?

Cohort-based programs differ from MOOCs in that students take a series of courses in groups. Students have the same learning schedules and deadlines instead of working at their own pace. The group atmosphere leads students to strive to keep up with the pack and not fall behind in class.

This is a notable change from MOOCs, where students may find it difficult to complete a course without the motivation of their peers. Another noticeable difference is the price; cohort-based courses can range from $500 to over $5,000. This acts as a barrier to entry, but it also acts as a deterrent to giving up since the money has been invested. On the other hand, most MOOC courses are free.

Learning in this cohort environment can increase student success rates due to interaction and accountability. Students also often have access to the instructor and can seek help and collaboration from other classmates, giving them a satisfying sense of community and purpose that is often lacking in MOOCs.

Who uses cohort learning?

Traditionally, cohort learning works best in higher education institutions. And with more and more students seeking additional degrees or certifications online due to Covid-19 restrictions, demand has become higher than ever. Some institutions have seen the number of students enrolled double just for their online MBA programs alone.

But higher education is not the only area where cohort learning is beginning to become the preferred mode of education. People seeking professional certifications can take group classes and progress through a program together. Companies could focus on staff development and enroll an entire team in one course. Cohorts can cover a ground as large as several related classes or as small as a single book.

One such example of a small-scale cohort is a group centered around Soundarya Balasubramani course on productivity and conscious planning. She plans to integrate the best of both worlds by teaching a cohort of 50 students from around the world in a virtual, live setting. Along with live classes, students can also join mastermind sessions, get feedback from coaches, and engage with each other in a private community. By having these integrations in place to facilitate community, cohort-based courses can bridge the gap between traditional online education, which is usually solitary, and that of traditional in-person courses.

Balasubramani is a graduate of Columbia University and author of Admitted: The Missing Guide to Create a Winning Application and Study Abroad, which is a highly rated bestseller on Amazon India. In addition, she maintains a blog focusing on productivity, education and career guidance. She notes the rise in demand for cohort-based courses with corresponding innovation by platforms such as Maven, Disco, and Virtually that facilitate creators and instructors. As one of the expert instructors on Maven, she sees immense value in cohort learning, having herself taken a cohort-based course to create her online courses.

Networking remains the key to success

With respect to the expected future success of a post-secondary student, the data indicate overall commitment as a strong indicator. By taking an active interest in the learning environment and the community, students are much more likely to graduate from their programs and, perhaps most importantly, build interpersonal relationships.

These relationships, whether peer-to-peer or mentored, can have a huge impact on career trajectories. Some colleges have begun to make networking a priority and have actively recruited alumni to interact with current students and provide access to desirable post-graduation internships. Again, this is a benefit generally unavailable to those participating in MOOCs.

Networking in cohort-based online learning environments may not feel like an in-person meeting, but the interactions between participants can still be important, especially for women and minorities. Video chats and meetings are increasingly common, providing an opportunity for real and valuable time between students or between students and instructors. As technology continues to adapt in order to meet the demand for online education, advancements in networking and collaboration will likely continue to facilitate the creation of beneficial relationships and connections.

MOOCs may have been the darling of online education of the 2010s, but 2020 is turning out to be the decade of cohort learning. With increased interaction and engagement among all contributing members, cohort-based learning is a viable option for students, lifelong learners, and businesses seeking online education with comprehensive functionality in a more connected and personalized environment.

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