Weighing the Scales

gold scale on a rainbow wooden table
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The phrase at scale has plagued me for a while now and my apprehension stems from knowing that bigger isn’t always better. The school of hard knocks has taught me this lesson more times than I care to admit. 

My most recent lesson came from a digital nomad meetup I attended in Portimao, Portugal. My goal for attending? Make some new friends (or even just one) in a new town. I thought it to be a pretty modest goal. There were loads of people and I expected that would mean I would make a few meaningful connections – more people = a bigger likelihood of finding at least one friend, right? I was wrong. I briefly spoke to a few individuals, not even close to a third of those in attendance. The result? 

Zero connections.

Zero new friends. 

And feeling even more alone than before the meetup. 

Conducting a Post-Mortem

So, I went home, poured a glass of wine, and reflected on my experience. The first observation I made was that my expectation and reality did not match up. I went into the meetup with the words of Jordan Baker of The Great Gatsby fame mulling around in my head: 

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties, there isn’t any privacy.”

But what I failed to take into account was that before this event, I had never met any of these people before. The organizers assigned the task of initiating a conversation solely in the hands of each individual attending. No one thought about carefully designing opportunities for the attendees to interact and connect. 

a pile of yellow lego minifigure heads
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jan_huber / Unsplash

I know, I know, I was definitely expecting too much from this well-meaning online community event. Although, it did look like some of the extroverted attendees were having a really great time, especially after drink number 3 – but we’re not all extroverted, and for some of us (me) it’s very hard (physically impossible) to walk across a room and strike up a conversation with someone new. And even harder if you’re a recovering FOPOer like me (FOPO: Fear Of People’s Opinions). 

A side effect of working in the eLearning industry is equating all of life’s experiences to learning design (Am I the only one?). I immediately thought about cohort-based learning – okay, maybe not immediately, but soon after my pity party was over. I am very lucky to be working for a company that shares my ethos when it comes to learning, so I immediately thought of a million and one ways that this experience could have been improved. 

Learning From the Past

The haunting phrase at scale entered my mind once again as I remembered the experience of completing my Human Resource Management degree via distance learning back in 2016. Distance learning was the predecessor of online learning and existed way before cohort-based learning was a thing. At this point, I had already completed a conventional in-person university degree, so doing everything asynchronously was new territory for me. 

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ideology had not made its way into the curriculum by that stage either. In a very basic nutshell, MOOCs are free online web-based courses available for anyone to enroll in usually consisting of a combination of pre-recorded video lessons, readings, assessments, and discussion forums (if you’re a fan of free things, read my article on free online courses).

I am sure that this program has since been improved, but during my time there, my learning experience was very similar to my digital nomad meetup. Students were expected to reach out to tutors of their own accord, and community forums were ill-designed and failed to maximize on the benefits of group learning. I ended up plodding along on my own, feeling alone, unsupported and unmotivated. 

Weighing the Pros and Cons

You can imagine my apprehension when one of my very favorite clients mentioned they would like to explore the use case for on-demand courses at scale across their product. I mean, it’s a reasonable request to ask your learning partners to scale your learning program, right? But at what cost? 

Let me run you through my thought process.

Scaling might immediately conjure up money-mouth emojis, but what does scaling do to the effectiveness of an online cohort-based learning program? Will your learners feel awkward and out of place in a sea of people? Is it even possible to scale a cohort-based course without moving into distance learning, on-demand, or even MOOC territory?

The first step to tackling these questions is to understand what it means to scale a cohort-based course or learning experience (hereon CBC). 

What makes a CBC special is that it’s designed for a group. Learners move through the program together, they begin and end a course together and move through content at the same time. The magic sauce is that learners get to learn together and from each other in specially designed learning communities.

Sometimes (and I really love this part) learners get together virtually at certain points in the learning experience to collaborate, share and teach

three people collaborating
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Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

Now it would be an absolute shame if you simply dropped the ‘cohort-based’ part of your course and opted for a self-paced on-demand course instead. That would probably be easier and it’s definitely possible, but cohort is king when it comes to truly transformational learning online.

Scaling this type of learning program is not just about enrolling 1000 students into a course that was designed for a cohort of 25. You’ll have to rethink your entire learner journey and (possibly) make some pretty significant changes to how you deliver your content. There are also a lot of technological considerations when scaling any kind of online training, so don’t forget about that.

Sorry, Not Sorry!

I have to take a second to apologize. If I have now added the phrase at scale to the list of things that haunt you too, I promise, it was never my intention.

If you’re looking for black-and-white answers, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not going to find them in this article. The good news is, I’m a life-long learner. The reflections housed within this article have called upon the many lessons that I’ve learned in the past and the experiences I’ve had surrounding cohort-based learning.

I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing but after writing this article, I’ve realized that I have more wisdom to impart. So, if you’re interested in learning more about the nitty-gritty of scaling a CBC, the challenges to consider, and the actions you can take to keep your learners front and center while scaling – stay tuned as I share my experience and the lessons learned with you next week.

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