Why cohort-based online courses are a powerful tool for training providers


During the first COVID lockdown, the whole world had to drastically switch to remote and online working.

Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of bumps as this new way of working played out. People had to learn how to communicate and collaborate from their new setting – often with new and unfamiliar technologies and many distractions in their lives.

From a training perspective, the change was just as dramatic. Overnight, training providers and L&D teams could no longer hold face-to-face training courses and instead had to learn how to deliver training – often at scale – through an online format. Those who had yet made the leap to some online delivery were faced with a multitude of challenges against a rapidly evolving situation.

Many would argue that COVID-19 forced a change that was long overdue. In his book ‘Learning Technologies in the Workplace’, Donald H. Taylor refers to the ‘schoolroom assumption’, where a face-to-face setting is seen as the default environment for any training. The pandemic has finally forced many training providers to ‘grasp the nettle’ and reevaluate what online learning can provide as a means of delivery.

The good news is that for many training businesses, there is little appetite for a return to the levels of face-to-face training seen pre-2020. Online delivery brings many operational, administrative, financial and training benefits that face-to-face can’t offer, and despite requests from some organisations for a return to the classroom, many are resisting the call.

However, despite the switch to online, we firmly believe that online learning still has a long way to go before the training industry unlocks the real potential in online learning.

Due to the time pressures from the first lockdown, some training providers simply transposed a classroom approach to online learning and have yet to develop this further.

There has to be a better way!

Cohort-based courses

We believe that cohort-based courses offer a fresh alternative to corporate online learning and are a powerful format that every training provider should have in their toolkit.

In cohort-based courses, learners learn together over a scheduled period of time. Typically these courses would involve live online events, such as group video calls or webinars, where learners gather in the same space in real-time (also known as ‘synchronous learning’).

This is supported with self-paced learning elements, such as on-demand content that learners study in their own time and by themselves (‘asynchronous learning’).

The format is nothing new – many university courses, for example, are delivered in this way. But it seems the format has yet to get significant traction within organisations.

At Candle Digital, we’re starting to see more interest in training providers wanting help in designing and delivering cohort-based courses. But why the interest? Well first, let’s consider the benefits of cohort-based learning as a format.

The principles of how adults learn

In April 2021, Sumit Dutta from McKinsey & Company wrote a powerful piece on building skills remotely.

In the article, she highlights five principles based on learning, neurological and behavioural-change science that can be applied to help people learn more effectively.

These are:

  1. Practice and application
  2. Reinforcement and spacing
  3. Intense, immersive experiences
  4. Social learning and collaboration
  5. Motivation and mindsets

Often these elements can be missing from entirely synchronous learning. Yet a cohort-based course format, mixing synchronous and asynchronous elements, supports many of these principles.

Let’s take a course format that blends live video group calls with self-study materials, such as the example below, and consider how affects the five factors discussed in the McKinsey article.

Cohort-based courses

The advantages of cohort-based learning

By spacing the delivery, this provides the learner with the opportunity to implement their new skills and knowledge in the workplace in between sessions. Rather than being a footnote or recommendation after a full day’s training (which is quickly forgotten in the rush to check emails or get home), practice can be baked into the programme as a whole. The course designer can plan opportunities to reflect and feedback on how they are implementing their training into the group call and share this with the course tutor and their peers. As part of the programme, performance aids such as downloadable resources or prompt emails can be provided to support the learner in between sessions.

The trainer or course tutor can use these insights to shape the direction of the course, based on real-world use of what’s been taught. This gives the trainer more flexibility to adapt the programme to the group as this progresses.

Key topics can be introduced either in live or self-study formats then reinforced through the other. For those that need additional help in certain areas, or simply have a keen interest to learn more about a specific subject, then the learner has the autonomy to investigate this as much as they wish.

Self-study materials can act as the input for the topic. This provides the background and theory behind what is being taught. This means the valuable time when everyone is together can be used much more effectively – for sharing, collaborating, diving into problem areas and reflecting.

Spending time as a group can bring new ‘voices’ in the programme. Rather than simply learning from the course creator, students can hear from a range of diverse perspectives, often with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions to enrich the course.

With a regular group call (and materials to study in their own time), learners can create a routine that creates urgency and accountability to progress. Learning with others can be a motivation to dedicate themselves to study and to ensure they can make a strong contribution in the group sessions.

A programme or course over a fixed period helps learners ringfence the time in their lives. Often it can be difficult to schedule dedicated time to study, but a cohort-based course brings a mix of scheduled events with the flexibility to learn at a time of their own choosing.

So there’s the case for cohort-based courses! We firmly believe that this powerful format aids motivation, brings accountability and helps students learn from each other. It presents new opportunity to switch away from knowledge dumps and create training that transforms skills, habits and attitudes.

If you’re a training provider who wants to bring cohort-based courses into your online learning portfolio, we can help. Simply click here or schedule your free discovery call.

Andy Jack

Andy Jack

Andy loves helping subject experts, authors, speakers, coaches and key persons of influence to monetise their expertise with online learning. When not on his laptop, he'll usually be found up a mountain!

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