Cohort-Based Courses: The Final Iteration of Online Education?

July 11, 2021

Online education has evolved since the time MOOCs arrived. EdX and Coursera flourished in this era. This was Type 1.

Next came marketplaces, or Type 2, which made it easy for teachers to create content and start earning money. Marketplaces like Udemy work like Amazon does. They aggregate teachers (sellers), allow them to compete for traffic based on keywords and interests, and the one with the best content, ratings and reviews gets a sizeable share of the earning potential, which is shared with the platform.

Just like Shopify emerged as an answer to Amazon, so did tools like Teachable, Kajabi and others. These tools, part of the Type 3 wave, enabled a teacher to sell their course directly to their audience. While this meant that the teacher would have to build their own audience, it also meant that they would keep majority of the revenue as their share and only pay a tiny fraction as subscription fees to the tools.

In its latest iteration, online education has evolved to a cohort based learning program. Let's call this Type 4.

To sum it up:

People want to learn new skills from experts they trust, be part of a community they can learn from and grow with, and hold them accountable to their goals.

You can learn more about the history of each era from this extremely informative piece by Forte Labs.

What is a cohort-based course?

A cohort-based course is simply an online course where a group of students (the cohort) start learning at same time, and progress through the course with a mix of live classes from the teacher, peer-based learning and collaboration, projects and outcomes (like a final exam) and graduation, which is the end of the cohort.

After the cohort ends, students become part of the course’s alumni network, much like when you graduate from college. As part of the alumni network, you help out your younger (not in age) peers, as well as learn from them, share opportunities, find avenues to collaborate, and ultimately grow together to achieve your individual and collective goals.

Is cohort-based learning a new phenomena?

Most people who are reading this went to school. Schools are the OG cohort-based learning environments.

Here are its characteristics:

  • You learn from teachers in a live environment (not pre-recorded sessions) in a classroom.
  • You interact with peers to discuss doubts, share notes, learn from each other.
  • You collaborate with peers to work on projects.
  • You compete with peers to do better.
  • The cohort model creates high accountability. A significantly high percentage of students manage to crack each year of schooling in their first attempt. The key metric is completion rates.

The same characteristics are present in college education, like your MBA or undergrad programs.

What makes cohort-based learning special?

Completion rate is the single metric that tells you why cohort-based courses are being talked everywhere, and why they it’s just the beginning of a new era of online education.

MOOCs and self-paced courses low completion rates, between 5-15%. That’s pitifully low if you think about it. Imagine if up to 95% of the kids you went to school with failed every year.

Compare that to classroom environments in school and college, where completion rates would be 80-90% or even higher.

Early success in online cohort-based courses and their completion rates tell you why this is the next frontier of online education.

Seth Godin’s altMBA, a cohort-based online MBA, saw a completion rate of 96%.

Let that sink in.

How to write, design and create a cohort-based course

The only experience I have with creating online courses is Programmatic SEO, which I had launched in January to over $6000 in pre-orders.

Programmatic SEO is a self-paced course with pre-recorded material that you can finish in one weekend, sold using tools like Gumroad. It belongs to Type 3, but it does make me $1,000 per month in passive income, which I like.

Hence, I can’t and don’t claim expertise in how to build a cohort-based course.

There’s very little literature on this as it’s a fairly new domain, but here are the best articles I could find, that might help you in your research.

Tools you need to manage and run a cohort-based course

The tools needed to create, launch and run a cohort-based course already exist.

You can pick and choose the tools you like and stitch them together, automate processes using Zapier, and manage just fine as a one person online school.

  • Managing student enrolments - Google Sheets, Notion
  • Collecting payments - Gumroad, PayPal, Razorpay
  • Surveys - Google forms, Typeform
  • Hosting live classes - Zoom, Google Meet
  • Sharing course material - Google Docs, Google Drive, Dropbox
  • Tracking student progress - Google Sheets, Notion
  • Community - Slack, Discord, Circle
  • Sending updates - Gmail, Outlook

7 Platforms to help you launch and grow your cohort-based courses

Using a dozen tools is one way to do run a CBC.

There are a lot of new platforms being designed and built to tackle the specific challenges that an educator faces while running their online school.

Here’s 7 cohort-based course platforms available today:

  1. Airtribe
  2. Graphy
  3. Maven
  4. Virtually
  5. Airschool
  6. Teachfloor
  7. Disco

Are you planning to launch a cohort-based course?

Would love to hear your thoughts about it, especially the challenges that might be stopping you from launching one.

Feel free to reach out to me!

By the way, I teach a course called Learn Programmatic SEO to help grow Google search traffic.

Programmatic SEO is a methodical and data-driven approach to finding keywords, understanding user intent and creating dozens or hundreds of pages of content.

Learn how to apply this framework to your business, whether it's ecommerce, SaaS, or even a side project. No prior SEO knowledge required.

Learn more about the course
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