Creating cohorts: how to solve the online learning conundrum

The ease of access to online learning has solved many training problems, but it has also created new ones. Tim Sarchet explains the importance of learning in groups.

The story of web-based learning, from the first recognised online programme at the Open University 20 years ago to the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses and expansive corporate training programmes, has been a story of consumption.

Today, most online learning comprises educational content that rarely engages audiences for long. This is because the social aspect of learning, the discussions, debates and exchanges between learners, that we put so much emphasis on in modern education is largely absent from online learning.

Not only do certain subjects require social interaction to truly be absorbed, for example business strategy – where there is no definitive correct answer and require discussion and debate, social interaction can deepen a participant’s connection with the learning programme.

Often, companies believe that they are faced with a choice: to take employees into a classroom if it’s logistically feasible to do so. Or choose a web-based platform where individuals learn in isolation, so more people can take part in flexible locations.

…Perceived logistical and cost implications mean individually taken, web-based programmes continue to be the norm in business learning”

This doesn’t have to be the case, and is at odds with the steps technology has made to foster deeper connections, conversations and networks over the past decade. So why aren’t social experiences a core component of online learning in the workplace?

The wrong problem and how to solve it

To find an answer, we need to look back to the original problem: access. Online learning has primarily been focused on providing access to time-poor participants, enabling as many people as possible to learn when and where they wanted.

But with thousands of users moving through a programme on their own terms and at their own pace, effective social interaction becomes almost impossible. So the challenge that online learning attempts to address today needs to evolve from the problem of access to the problem of effectiveness. Specifically, how are the structures and environments created online that are conducive to truly effective learning?

The return of the cohort

If we accept that social interaction is key to teaching certain subjects, and that the current problem facing online learning experiences is effectiveness, then one thing matters more than anything else: cohorts.

Learning in groups has long been a feature of effective learning and a core metric for measuring academic institutions. The QS World Universities Ranking attributes 20% of their overall assessment to faculty-student ratio, while the Times Higher Education World University Rankings assigns teaching quality, of which faculty-student ratio is one of the most important factors, 30% of their overall assessment.

While there is some disagreement as to the optimum class size, it is hard to find any argument or research in favour of very large classes. Simply put, relatively small groups are hugely beneficial to learning outcomes, but while many companies may appreciate this, the perceived logistical and cost implications mean individually taken, web-based programmes continue to be the norm in business learning.

Here are a few considerations for businesses to ensure that they are able to deliver effective learning programmes that can engage thousands of employees at a time:

1. Cohorts have made a comeback

Everything learners do should happen in their group; they should interact, compete and be assessed against the performance of their peers. That’s not to say interactions with much larger groups shouldn’t happen. They should. But the primary experience needs to happen within the smaller group, with additional opportunities for cross-cohort interaction. Not the other way around.

2. Create a structured but flexible learning environment

“Anytime, anywhere” access is a huge advantage of online learning. To retain this, everyone in the group must meet the same deadlines, but they should have the freedom to study when and where they want.

By creating a flexible structure to the programme, participants generally learn at the same pace, creating more opportunities for meaningful interactions while retaining the ability to learn on their own terms.

3. Cohort design matters

The size of the cohort matters; most meaningful interactions emerge in groups that contain between 20 and 35 members. Much larger than that and interactions become repetitive and voices are drowned out; much smaller and the interaction feels insufficient.

In learning environments where we have greater control, such as in corporate learning, it’s important that participants are carefully selected. A blend of different geographical regions, different levels of seniority, and different areas of functional expertise tend to create better social interactions.

There is still a lot to test and learn around online-based cohort learning. As businesses increasingly recognise how this is deepening programme engagement, and having a positive impact on employees’ performance after training, it’s only a matter of time before the siloed, self-paced online learning model becomes an educational Betamax.

Tim Sarchet

About Tim Sarchet

Tim Sarchet is COO and co-founder of Nomadic Learning.
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