Why learning together is the future of online education

Something remarkable is happening with online learning. Call it the second wave of ed tech.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. And wow – there’s been a lot of necessity over the last two years – and a lot of invention. For business leaders and businesses, the massive social experiment that has necessitated the shift from in-person to online environments has reshaped the way we think and design workplace learning. We were already in a skills-upgrading imperative, facing ever-increasing demands for skills development and hiring challenges. The pandemic has succeeded in accelerating these requests.

The first wave of educational technology started about 15 years ago with groundbreaking companies like Khan Academy, Udemy, Pluralsight, and Coursera. By making quality educational content available as widely as possible, these online services have helped democratize learning. As an educational technology leader and instructor to over 200,000 online learners, I have seen how transformational this educational revolution has been. Millions of people have access to life-changing learning, right on their computers and mobile devices.

Following the technological revolution in education, we are witnessing an exciting and necessary evolution – an evolution to tackle the elephant in the online classroom. The reality is that engagement and completion rates for online learning are notoriously low. Learning leaders struggle to drive engagement, even when learners have access to content on nearly every skill imaginable. Not enough people are making the progress they want with online education.

What stands in the way? I see three main reasons: accountability, efficiency and connection. Without accountability to a schedule and other learners, people don’t always have reason to complete a course or even start. Also, passive rather than active learning is less effective. (You don’t learn to ride a bike by watching someone ride a bike.) Finally, being connected with a teacher and peers makes all the difference in learning and retaining material, especially in remote settings. and hybrids.

This second wave leverages the science behind how adults actually learn with the modern conveniences we’ve all come to expect in a world of instant gratification. Simply put, this evolution of traditional e-learning builds on the benefits of asynchronous learning (taking a class on your schedule and where you are at any given time) and dramatically amplifies accountability and efficiency. by layering a cohort experience (a group of students who support and reinforce what you learn).


At the start of the pandemic, a running joke was that we could never tell ourselves that we would be more productive if we only had time. The truth is, a goal without a plan is just a wish. And learners without a plan are probably a bit lost.

When you bring learners together in a group and give them a plan, you amplify their ability to learn. The opportunity to learn from each other and see others progress provides a sense of belonging to a dynamic group, which increases motivation.

After all, you’re not working in a vacuum or an echo chamber, neither of which are effective learning environments. An ideal program plan has elements of choice: you can choose when to work on the curated content, but within a set time frame. You are given milestones and deadlines to complete at your convenience. By having a schedule where you have to learn the material and complete the course, the students complete the work. Additionally, working in a group of learners makes you feel indebted to them and your instructor.


When I think of online education as a whole, too many people and products focus on “What knowledge do I need to share with people?” instead of “What do I need to do for learners to learn?” It’s like handing learners a book and saying, “Great, I’ve done my part,” instead of designing an experience that ensures learners not only learn the material, but are challenged and excited about it. to learn it (which leads to greater retention).

Learning is a verb and we need to rethink how we design effective learning experiences. At my company, we design eight-week “learning journey” programs that combine independent learning with live workshops. We connect learners with experts and practitioners. Additionally, we provide opportunities for learners to collaborate and hone their skills with hands-on lab environments and business-relevant projects.

These types of active and social offers motivate students. Contrast that with someone staring at their screen for hours, just listening without practicing or receiving feedback on their progress. Which do you think leads to better learning outcomes?


Along with innovation in workplace learning, we have seen previously unimaginable changes in the workplace of employees. Many employees have spent the last two years at home and they do not want to return to their offices. This physical isolation presents unique challenges for companies in a time when retention is difficult and quits are on the rise. Employees with work ties are much more likely to have job satisfaction, better performance and longer tenure.

Online learning creates connections, something we crave in today’s isolated world. Cohort-based education can provide a way out of this isolation, providing many of the best qualities of in-person education. When properly implemented, learners can meet with instructors for one-on-one meetings, have breakout sessions with other students, or participate in whole-class interactions with the teacher and students.

I like to think of cohort-based learning as the modern water cooler where you meet your colleagues and build relationships while learning new skills. When implemented well, this new wave of online learning, based on how people actually learn, works because you are inspired and pushed to a new level by other learners. Or, as ed tech evangelist Steven Anderson the dish, “Alone we are smart, but together we are brilliant. »

Shelley Osborne is an Educational Technology and Learning Expert and Chief Learning Officer at Modal

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