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Cohort-based learning may replace disappointing MOOCs to engage corporate learners. What is cohort-based learning? Is it right for your organization?

A decade ago, the learning world was touting the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a giant step forward in making content accessible to all. Big-name higher educational institutions opened up much of their course content to the general public – for free or a low fee. Many individuals and companies were excited to supplement their learning options with high-quality content.

But MOOCs didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. Completion rates have been dismally low, typically ranging from 5 to 15%. One study found that, after a two-and-a-half-year test of five different behavioral interventions, none of the interventions improved completion rates for students – even for those who intended to complete the courses.

Learning leaders have been eager for an effective MOOC alternative that makes learning accessible and inclusive for all, while engaging learners to follow through.

Cohort-based learning – a fast-growing approach that started in higher education and is quickly moving into mainstream corporate learning – may be the answer. What is cohort-based learning? Is it right for your organization?

What Is Cohort-Based Learning?

Close the Gap Foundation offers this clear definition: “Cohort-based learning is a collaborative approach to learning in which students or individuals advance together throughout the duration of a course, program, or project. Instructors or mentors lead the group of students to complete given milestones.”

A group of learners, or a “cohort,” advance through the material together – learning together, supporting one another, and collaborating throughout the shared experience. Facilitators (or “guides”) guide each cohort through interactive experiences which, though it may or may not include self-paced learning, always features synchronous learning. It may be in person, online, or hybrid.

Key Elements of Cohort-Based Learning Model

E-Learning Advisor Craig Weiss has been closely monitoring the emergence and evolution of cohort-based learning as it moves into the corporate learning world. As learning technologies emerge or adapt to this “hot trend,” Weiss urges learning leaders to insist that their cohort-based learning model includes – and their learning technology supports – key elements such as these:

  • Agenda. This may be called a Syllabus or Table of Contents. It provides learners the plan of topics to be covered, assignments, activities, and dates for each throughout the course.
  • Assignments. Homework tasks to be completed by a specified date.
  • Activities. Collaborative, peer-to-peer learning and knowledge-sharing experiences.
  • Communities. Weiss prefers the term “Learning Pod” which is not (yet) widely adopted. These are small groups (ideally, between six and ten individuals) that share activities and move through the learning experience together as a group with one facilitator. The best communities are made up of individuals with varied backgrounds.
  • Facilitator (i.e., guide). Weiss emphasizes that, “Ideally [facilitators] should be a trainer or trainers. Someone with a training background” rather than a subject matter expert. The facilitator is responsible for guiding the learning of the cohort and the individuals within it.
  • Group Communication. Real-time exchanges among peers and between a facilitator and cohort members.
  • Mentors. Considered “a must” by Weiss, a mentor is someone who can make a positive difference in learners – who they are and what they will achieve. Ideally, the learning program will have more than one mentor, depending on the number and size of the cohorts and learning pods.
  • Network. Collection of professional resources outside of the cohort that helps cohort members share knowledge, experiences, and connections throughout their careers.

Benefits of Cohort-Based Learning

One of the greatest benefits of cohort-based learning is the high correlation between learners’ sense of community and their learning. This EducateMe article cites:cohort-based learning

  • Engagement: “94% of students say that group learning increased their interest in the courses.”
  • Learning Success: “Students taught through lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who participate in active learning.”

Other benefits include:

  • Accountability. Unlike the MOOC experience, where individuals move through self-paced learning, cohort-based learning has built-in accountability. Learners have an agenda or syllabus with dates and deadlines, a facilitator to guide the learning process, and peers to support and advance the learning.
  • Community Building. When a group of individuals move through a learning experience, communities are fostered – with social support and collaboration.
  • Diversity and Inclusivity. Cohorts are designed for a diverse composition, encouraging people with a range of backgrounds, roles, and perspectives to collaborate and enrich the learning experience of each person.
  • Relevance. Synchronous learning naturally introduces the opportunity to incorporate current events that are relevant to the topics.
  • Soft Skills Development. Whatever the focus of the course, the interactivity and collaboration of a cohort supports the development of important soft skills such as communication, problem solving, and leadership.

Is It Appropriate for Your Organization?

The draw of cohort-based learning is compelling. But is it right for your organization? Here are four considerations when deciding whether to explore and adopt a cohort:

  1. Facilitator resources. This role is essential, so ask yourself whether you have – or can find – personnel who are qualified training experts. These individuals will need to be skilled at engaging all learners, regardless of backgrounds and engagement style.
  2. Mentor resources. Another key role. Look for one or several individuals who are interested in and skilled at supporting others in their professional career.
  3. Identified group learning need(s). Confirm that you have a team or group that could be gaining knowledge or skills over the course of a few weeks together. Do you need to train your sales team? Looking to upskill a group of employees who need to advance their skills? Are you rolling out a new software application to a team or group?
  4. Learning technology. Does your learning technology truly support the essentials of a cohort-based learning model?

If you have a clear need and the right resources, now may be the time to start moving toward a cohort-based learning program. It will take time, commitment, and resources, but if it fits your organization, this approach could be today’s answer to the promise of MOOCs!


Is your team exploring cohort-based learning? Download our Solving Workforce Issues Using a Competency-Based Approach white paper to see how a competency-based approach can help. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor LMS™ or WebMentor Skills™ competency management system may support your efforts.


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