5 Lessons from our First Cohort-Based Course

Shifting from corporate training to public cohort

A decade ago, a computer science course broke the news and brought in 100,000 students. It was a big milestone. Students from all over the world, no matter their wealth, formal education or connections, enrolled to take an advanced course from a world renowned expert in the field.

The media buzz was real. Not mentioned in the many articles was the uncomfortable fact that nearly 88% of the students that enrolled dropped out of the course. Twelve thousand students graduated — admittedly a huge number and big contribution, but still only a tiny fraction of the number that started the course.

study by two MIT researchers found that from 2013 to 2018, the completion rates for open online courses steadily declined, to an average of 3% in 2018.

In the meantime the online education space has evolved considerably. We’ve seen experts monetising their knowledge and building their own courses through marketplaces like Skillshare and tools like Teachable.

Cohort-Based Courses

One of the recent movements in the online space were so called cohort-based courses. In contrast to classical self-paced courses, a group of individuals advance through the educational program together in a sprint like format.

Every time the course opens, a cohort of people enters the learning experience on a collective journey of personal growth. Superstars in the field are the altMBA or Building a Second Brain.

We’re also seeing new ventures relying on this learning style: On Deck is positioning themselves as modern online university and Maven, a new platform for cohort-based courses was just brought to life by the founders of Udemy, altMBA and Socratic.

In our own small business, we followed this development closely and found cohort-based to be the right format to teach what we know online and in a very hands-on way.

Our approach

In 2020, when the pandemic impacted lives at home and at work, we set out to build a training for better online collaboration. It’s called the Facilitator Masterclass.

To test the waters we pitched the course with a rough outline to one of our corporate clients as a digital-first training to leverage and improve remote work.

Over the next three months we were heads down in the pilot cohort, produced and taught, produced and taught. In six live workshops we mixed facilitation skills with visual collaboration and pushed countless pixels on our digital whiteboards.

Our mini cohort consisted of seven people. The work was exhausting but the results were promising. In the following months we reflected a lot, researched and went on to take the course to the public.

The lessons

In this section I’ll reflect on some of the major learnings from both running but also preparing the course. I will then conclude what we changed for the next iteration of the class.

1. Set a keystone project

What’s the goal of the course? We wanted this question to be clear at any point of the course. In our case the goal of the course is that every participant is able to set-up and run their own remote workshops, every time, without drama.

To make sure that this goal is tangible, we set a keystone project as the final project in the training. In our case it’s an online workshop that participants hold in their real work environment. With such a project at the end, it became much clearer how the structure of the course should be laid out.

In the first course we learned that the keystone project served as psychological anchor for people and gave the curriculum a golden thread. In the iteration of our class we moved the keystone project even more to the core of the course. The curriculum now centers around materials and hands-on projects to gradually reach the goal.

2. Leverage asynchronous elements

Some cohort-based programs, such as Marie Forleo’s B School, embrace the “flipped classroom” model. Pre-recorded content is consumed on students’ own schedule, and the live classroom is reserved for things like coaching, interacting, asking questions, and sharing personal experiences.

Our first cohort was completely live. While it was very helpful to get started and to see the students reaction to the material, we also noticed that for the theory part there was no real upside in presenting it live. So we decided that fundamental lessons will be recorded and participants can pause, slow-down and re-play whenever suits them best. Live workshops will be reserved for coaching, practice and working together.

One side effect of investing in asynchronous content is that it’s sort of evergreen content. Wether in written form, audio or video, all materials are small assets that can be prepared once and used multiple times over.

3. Build a tightly knit group

Veterans in the online cohort space often emphasise that the connections they made in cohorts were incredible. As the internet enables us to learn and improve with people across the globe we now can learn in a group with like minded people from another corner on the globe.

“The altMBA community is full of the most inspiring group of people I have ever worked with. There wasn’t one individual I crossed paths with, who I didn’t learn something from.”

Now this effect is of course different in a small cohort where the nature of the size limits the amount of people a participant will meet. But a small tribe can provide something that a big class has more difficulty with, intimacy and trust. In our first cohort, though only with seven people, we noticed that participants went from strangers to a strong sense of being part of a group.

A tight group also helps to increase students engagement. If there is a small circle who you’ll let down if you don’t show up, you are more likely to show up and contribute. Small is powerful to keep each other accountable, give honest feedback and grow in a psychologically safe space.

4. Embed individual guidance

There’s another upside to having a small student group: We can support on the individual level. That way the whole training gets a more coaching like character.

Personally, I became a big fan of 1:1 coaching calls. In the first class we used them to prepare participants for their remote workshops. The session helped them to gain confidence in their ability to nail their keystone project for their co-workers.

Besides having the comfort of a supporting group, there is a special dynamic in a 1:1 setting. You can get to know the students needs better and deliver very tangible guidance that is tailored to their situation. In the feedback of our course the 1:1 sessions were recognised as an essential part of the training.

In the next class we will increase individual guidance by re-thinking the preparation session and by adding another 1:1 session at the beginning for individual onboarding.

5. Document the process

The ideal approach to launch your course varies depending on your situation. One approach we first tried is Tiago Forte’s 4P Framework.

Tiago suggests to lay out the course launch into four phases: Planning, Promotion, Preparation, Production. Each phase is one week, followed by one open cart week where it is possible to purchase the course and one buffer week before the course starts. I especially like the promote before you produce mentality as it allows you to test the waters and gain insights for production. You can find the summarised six-week launch schedule in this thread.

If you start with a smaller audience, like we did, there is a bigger ramp. Marketing will need more attention and production also might take longer than a week so you might want to stretch the schedule to your needs. We basically blocked a whole month for outlines, production and editing.

In order to keep the marketing up we decided to follow the Show Your Work mentality from Austin Kleon and document the whole journey of shaping the business. This post from my business partner Daniel is one example.

The article you’re reading now is another example. By documenting the process we can share insights from within the course but also let people around us know what we’re working on and spark curiosity.


Final words

Cohort-based courses aren’t a new thing. After all we’ve been learning in classrooms for centuries. But with the mainstream adaption of video conferencing tools we can combine learning in community with the many upsides of online learning.

Investing your time into building such a course is a big bet. Think of the course materials, operation and sales. It’s a heavy lift.

In hindsight we probably could have searched for a smaller way to test the course idea and get started. Recently I saw the idea of setting up a workshop, teach one lesson and see the reaction before hitting the highway.

Whatever you go for, the journey of running a cohort-based course is both challenging and really rewarding as you will be working with a very effective way of making education applicable.

That’s it for now, have a good start of the week.

René

In this little corner I document the journey of launching a cohort-based course, being a minimalist entrepreneur and discussing life with my Italian grandma.