To Scale or Not to Scale: Considerations for your Cohort-Based Learning Experience

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Last week I left you on a learning cliffhanger, but I am a woman of my word, so this week I am back to share what I have learned about scaling a cohort-based learning experience.

If you missed out on my article last week, you can find it here

Scaling an online experience is easy, but scaling one designed for a cohort is a much harder task. This is exactly what my team was recently asked to do for one of our clients. 

I shared my apprehensions about scaling with you last week, but I refused to allow my past experience with large groups to affect the way I approached this project. Instead, I chose to see this task as a challenge. An opportunity to apply my learnings and create a truly transformational cohort-based learning experience – at scale!

I turned to Tiago Forte’s article to pinpoint the most basic elements that sets cohort-based courses (hereon CBC) apart from a regular old MOOC – community, accountability, interaction, and impact. My mission was to make sure that I never lose sight of these four elements while scaling.

The Four Pillars of a CBC

1. Community

Humans don’t learn in isolation, we have always relied on our communities to teach. I learned how to make a comfort-food-at-its-finest lasagne from watching my mom, how to be a good team player from interacting with my teammates and coach on my Netball team, and how to articulate arguments from my peers during school debates.

Learning is so much more effective when done in a group, especially if the learner really feels like a part of that group. An effective CBC builds safe communities where learners can share openly, without fear of judgment. 

The Challenge: Bigger Cohorts Errode Community

When you scale, of course, your cohort will too and this poses a huge risk for that sense of community and belonging you worked so hard to create. It’s much less likely that you’ll feel like you belong when you’re learning alongside 1000 people as opposed to 25 – remember how I felt at that digital nomad meetup? 

In a group of 25, everyone will know your name, someone will notice when you interact in a discussion (and when you don’t), and your voice will be heard – you will feel seen

The Solve: Teams

Critically think about your cohort size. Groups that are too large discourage participation and isolate learners, but groups that are too small may lack depth in discussions and diversity of opinion. At Curious Lion, we recommend cohorts of between 25 (the sweet spot) and 50.

Now you’re probably wondering what on earth I am talking about here. You’re looking to scale your course, not keep it quaint. Break up your large cohort into smaller cohorts and call the groups something course-appropriate – teams, groups, huddles, circles – whatever your learners will resonate with. Create separate digital spaces for these micro-groups to interact in.

Let the groups come up with their team name and create opportunities for them to take what they have discussed as a group to the larger course community. A bonus side effect of this approach is some healthy team rivalry and an opportunity for debating different points of view. 

A great way that my digital nomad community applied this concept was by creating separate interest groups within the larger community. I joined a running group, a women’s circle, and even a group dedicated to learning Portuguese. These groups were much more intimate and encouraged personal connections, but still part of the larger community.

If I had attended a run with a few members of the running group before attending the larger community meetup, I am sure my experience would have been different.

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I went on a couple of runs and I am very happy to report that I met (and truly connected with) a lovely human being, who is now a really great friend.

2. Accountability

What makes a smaller cohort so successful is the ability to incorporate layers of social accountability. When I think back to my time as a teacher, my classes were small enough to know how each student was progressing. 

I was able to spend intentional time reviewing, grading, and providing helpful, individualized feedback to each student. If they were falling behind and needed personal attention, I would schedule tutorials with them during recess or after school. All these things are slightly harder to do in an online environment and nearly impossible at scale.

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Hannah Busing / Unsplash

The Challenge: Lack of Accountability

The problem with cohort-based learning is that, despite it being community-led, it requires a lot of involvement from the facilitator.

When scaling, your biggest friend is automation, but when this is executed poorly, it can remove the intimacy of your course and leave learners feeling lost and unmotivated to complete tasks or unsure of the progress they are making due to a lack of feedback. 

The Solve: Leverage Your Community

Async as much as possible:

Try to keep all discussions and group activities asynchronous. Your learners might be in different time zones and have different responsibilities throughout the day and won’t all be available for a live session at a set time. You don’t want anyone to feel left out, so async as much as you can and be mindful of time zone differences when setting deadlines.

Submissions & Peer Reviews:

The best way to learn is by doing, so don’t remove all submissions and success metrics from your CBCs just because they’re hard to track and grade. Instead, leverage your community and tap into the power of multi-directional knowledge sharing. Learning benefits greatly from genuine knowledge sharing. Carefully design projects or tasks that truly test the relevant skills and behaviors and then trust your cohorts to help and guide each other through the task.

3. Interaction

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Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

People are social creatures, we all crave connection whether we care to admit it or not. When my husband left for a 7-week trip to South Africa, I bravely declared that I would be fine on my own as a strong independent woman. In fact, I looked forward to some alone time. To escape the rainy North of Portugal, I even decided to move South and spend that time in a city I had never been to and of course, where I knew no one. It was week 2 when I started to miss human connection and that is what prompted me to attend that fateful meetup in search of warm bodies to interact with.

The Challenge: Disconnected Learners

Larger groups will be less likely to interact with each other unprompted, so designing opportunities for your learners to engage with will become even more important at scale. The risk here is that healthy debate will no longer be possible and instead of a dialogue, learners might interact with a community post only once, leaving the learning potential unrealized. 

The Solve: Well-designed Social Interactions

Research has shown that peer interaction can be far more effective for learning than the skill of a superstar instructor. That’s great news for the scalability of your course. 

Live Sessions:

I am a big fan of live sessions. There’s something about seeing real faces (even if it’s on a computer screen) that motivates you to keep on going, reminds you that you’re not in this alone, and ramps up accountability. Live sessions encourage real-time feedback and rich discussions. Here’s where hybrid courses (combining asynchronous learning with face-to-face learning) have a one-up on MOOCs. 

It will of course be hard to do and you’ll have to accept the fact that not everybody will be able to attend, but I have some tips to mitigate some of the FOMO for your learners:

  • Host two live sessions – choose your time based on the location of the majority of your learners. Somewhere between 7 pm and 9 pm is usually a good time – learners have clocked off at their day jobs, made dinner, gone to the gym, put the kids to bed, or completed any other important tasks on their daily to-do list. If the majority of your cohort is based somewhere in the US for example, you can host a session at 8 pm EST and one at 8 pm PST. If they’re based on opposite sides of the world, you might host one at 8 pm EST and one at 8 pm CET. 
  • Record live sessions and post them in the community. Learners who are unable to attend can rewatch the live sessions and benefit from the group discussions. 
  • Ask learners to submit questions before each live session. Learners who know they can’t attend a live session, but have a burning question they’d like to discuss with the group, can submit it before the session and watch the playback to see the group’s feedback. 
  • Encourage groups to meet independently. This point may be a little controversial, but hear me out. Cohort-based learning is designed to be community-led and should not be overly dependent on a facilitator.  So why not encourage groups to meet unsupervised? If you’ve paired groups based on location, they might like to schedule their own sync sessions, and that’s perfectly fine. You have already done the work to design the session, so share the session deck, the session notes, and anything else they might need in a central location so they can fly solo. 

Forum Style Discussions:

No, I am not suggesting one community prompt every so often that asks learners to reply to a generic pre-populated post. I am suggesting real engaging conversation topics. Design interactions that encourage learners to respond to each other, come up with solutions together or convince the other of their point of view. 

Remember that these interactions do not just have to be discussions. Why not get an argument going? Healthy debate is a great way to explore different perspectives and spark creativity.

4. Impact

The most important part of a CBC is its ability (if designed and executed well) to truly transform the learner – to create lasting behavioral changes. If your CBC does not meet its learning objective, the sad truth is, it has essentially failed.

two cocoons and a butterfly hanging
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Suzanne D. Williams / Unsplash

When making any significant scaling decision, ask yourself: How will this impact the learning? Will this change affect whether or not the learning objective is met? I have had to ask myself this question many times after moving to a new country where I still have a lot to learn – the hardest being the language. Doing what is easiest often isn’t what is best for learning. It’s easy to ask the teller if they speak English, but it’s hard to string my 50 Portuguese words into a sentence and hope that they’ll understand (and not think me to be illiterate).

The Challenge: Learning Objectives Not Met

It’s easy to forget about the learning objective and focus on the dollar signs when scaling your online course, but remember that the success of your CBC ultimately depends on whether or not the learning objectives are met. If you want to see a real ROI, your priority must be the learning.

So when you ask yourself, “Will this change affect whether or not the learning objective is met?”  be prepared to abandon ideas that do not contribute to the achievement of the learning objective. 

The Solve: Challenge Your Learners

Guess what? Your learners want to be challenged, they want to see a return on their time investment, and they want to walk away from their learning experience changed. The only way in which you can do that is to design learning that is challenging and based on real-world problems.

We spoke about submissions earlier, but what kind of learning activities are the most effective and deliver the biggest punch? The simple answer – an activity that allows learners to practice the skill or behavior you are trying to teach. The answer might be simple, but the execution will be tough and will force you to keep that learning objective in mind at all times.

To Scale or Not to Scale

That really is the question…

If you’re wondering whether or not you should scale your cohort-based learning experience, my less-than-satisfying answer is – it depends. If you can successfully scale without losing the magic that makes a CBC special, then by all means go forth and get scaling, but if the learning experience is diluted and the effectiveness of the program is threatened, perhaps give it a bit more thought. 

I’m sad to say that the phrase at scale still plagues me – just a little bit. But after writing this piece, I have to say, my mind feels a little clearer. I have through many life experiences, learned that I enjoy smaller groups and struggle to form real connections in larger ones. I have also seen firsthand how cohort-based learning (even at scale) can be a powerful tool for behavior and even identity change

At the end of the day, the most important thing I keep in mind when I’m creating learning experiences is the learner and the learning – and if, like me, you’re keeping these things front and center, you’ll make the right decision whether to scale… or not.

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