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EdTech case study

In theory learning in the cohort can increase student success rates due to interaction, access to the instructor and collaboration with other students. A satisfying sense of community that is often lacking in MOOCs — sounds great!

But how does it looks in practice? How to create a cohort-based course that students love?

 

Context

In 2017, I was invited by a large training organization to create a course about nutrition for fitness trainers. Later two more courses were launched.

All these courses had features typical for online learning, such as textbooks, educational webinars, additional education materials, tests, and final exams. The company also had chat rooms for students, where teachers (not too involved in my opinion) answered students’ questions.

My key assumption was a successful and effective modern online learning program need to build a cohort learning system. I already had experience creating cohort products and I saw great potential. 3 years before the pandemic all this online stuff seemed not very important and useful. But we all know what happened next :) COVID has had a significant impact on the education industry, and it gave a powerful push to the implementation of my ideas.

Later, two more courses were created, in which the concept of cohort learning was implemented differently on similar groups of students. I had a control group — courses in which chats for students performed only the function of a simple question-and-answer format. In addition, about 5 communities were created for graduates and potential students of the organization, where elements of cohort learning were also included.

Cohort learning

It is worth accepting that online education has not come up with anything new to what has existed for a thousand years in universities around the world. It has the main tools of classical education in the Internet environment.

But not all tools. Online there are no campuses, no libraries (where you have to whisper and read books), no big lecture halls, and no student parties after all. There is not enough physical contact with people (which may not be so bad) and most importantly — no feeling of cohort.

Why is it important?

Here are some arguments:

- Motivation - people are social creatures and do not function well being alone. In self-paced courses, there’s often a low completion rate and a lack of accountability. Research suggests that cohort learning provides students with a higher level of motivation.


- Procrastination.  It is very difficult to force yourself to start some difficult stuff, such as studying the next piece of complex information. On the other hand, any process is easier to start on schedule or when everyone has started. Everyone runs — and I want to run.
 

- Efficiency - people learn many things much more efficiently in groups, watching the progress of other students, watching masters and experienced colleagues. The cohort model encourages students to be more involved in the learning process as opposed to passively consuming content

- Depth, width, and diverse perspectives When students learn independently, they’re unable to bounce ideas off of their peers. Cohorts have the ability to bring together people of many different backgrounds and experiences. Through group discussions, students can expand their perspectives and listen to opinions that differ from theirs.

- Entertainment, emotions - ok, nerds can miss it, but any process becomes more effective if it is fun or accompanied by emotions. Social is the main source of fun and emotions (live concert, stand-up, lecture vs recorded on YouTube)

- Feedback for the lecturers, teach-back. Without this, any course stops the evolution and gradually turns into a dinosaur.

Ok, sounds great! But it's so easy - just add a chat and you will have cohort learning!

Yep. Many have tried, but not everyone succeeds. It took me many years of experimentation to get this thing to work. But when it works, everyone’s really happy!

Implementation challenges

Provide value to stakeholders  — why you need to pay for it (create, moderate, bear risks). Because everything works anyway, there are students, training takes place, and money is earned.  Well. In my case, it took a long time to prove that it brings value.

 

The main arguments that finally worked was:

 

  • The high NPS and CSAT, the key metrics that affect the number of students. According to the questionnaires, high rates were associated with cohort education. At one of the courses, we temporarily excluded chats and NPS and CSAT dropped significantly.

  • And the return of students to new programs. Excellent study chats and the atmosphere of cohort learning were mentioned among the reason to come back.

 

Re-think the educational process. Online is not the same as a campus, a lecture hall, or a library. You have to learn to use your strengths and overcome your weaknesses. Here is an immense process of creativity, experiments, hypotheses and changes. You need to find what works.

 

Students' need for socialization VS shyness. Just creating a chat is not enough.

 

In classic college, students will go to drink beer at the end of the first week and wake up the next day as friends. And some even as a family :)  Online the conversation start barrier is often much higher.

 

It is not enough to create a chat, you need to learn how to activate each group and put it into work.

 

Education vs. Entertainment (-> educament).

 

At the same time, if chats turn into entertainment, students stop learning and a meaningless flood begins.

 

We researched this into student chats that they organized themselves. Without moderation and structure, it was not like cohort learning. Rather, on the third day of the extreme student party.

 

To adopt teachers. Ok, this is very difficult. They have an ambition, they consider themselves too busy to chat, they are not used to it, this is something new (Lol), etc.

 

To adopt a support team. Roughly the same set of problems.

 

In both cases, it worked best to set a positive example and create a special atmosphere. When teachers and managers see that cohort-based learning can make working with students easier, more comfortable, more effective, and get more meaningful feedback and positive ratings from graduates — they begin to rebuild.

Tools and stuff

In fact, only tool we need is a good chat service. I tried two options, the complex chat system was organized in Discord, linear chats for alumni community worked in Telegram. Both options work great, both require adaptation for special education process needs.

 

Discord. Pros — the wide technical capabilities of advanced chat platforms like Discord, the structure and separation of information into blocks. Cons - search and systematization tools do not work well.

Telegram. At first look, the linear structure of the chat is too complex for a collection of useful information, but in practice, it works well if you use search, tags, and provide active moderation.

 

Moderation

Soul, heart, and brain, no jokes.  Without a soul, there will be no desire to communicate. Without empathy, there will be no constructive atmosphere. Without logic, it will not be possible to educate, it will be just a pleasant gathering of colleagues.

 

As I mentioned you need people enrolled to make a cohort-based course work, therefore participation is key. Sometimes moderators have to put out fires, sometimes — break the ice in case group is shy or less engaged.

 

Another difficulty. Cohort teaching requires managing different levels of knowledge, some students will have more experience or expertise about a topic than others. It is necessary to make sure that smart students do not get bored, and those who are lagging behind do not feel like fools.

 

Good news. If you have a passionate teacher, you have your first great moderator. Then you need to wait for the balance to be established, and you can let in assistants.

 

To be continued…