The Case for Cohort-based Online Courses
The discrepancy between the elevated expectations of online education and its actual outcomes has led to the rise of a new generation of interactive online courses where a group of students advances through the material together in “cohorts”. This is the underlying philosophy behind the latest addition to the HEC Paris Summer School portfolio – the Online Certificate Programs – offering a semi-flexible alternative for full-time students and young professionals leading busy lifestyles around the globe and who want to continue their learning during the academic year.
Educational content is now readily available on social media and other platforms. Numerous low-cost or free online courses and alternative education programs have emerged to cater to working professionals seeking to expand their knowledge. “We’re in a post-content age,” says Wes Kao, author of the article* that inspired this news item.
She elaborates on the paradox of how the abundance of cheap, readily available content has left most learners worse off than before. “It has become evident over the years that more access does not translate to more engagement. Many online course providers that gained prominence in the aughts sold the pretense that customers could learn anything, but relied on the learners’ willpower and motivation to stick through a course.” Similarly, on many MOOC platforms — the massively open online courses that gained popularity in the 2010s and continue in various forms today — the primary learning method is passive content consumption; there is limited interaction or genuine sense of community; and there are no restrictions on time. This unfortunately results in a very small percentage of learners who successfully complete a program.
It is this discrepancy between the elevated expectations of online education and its actual outcomes that has led to a noticeable shift in recent years from content to communities; the emergence of a new generation of cohort-based courses (CBCs), interactive online courses where a group of students progresses through the course material together — in “cohorts” — with hands-on, feedback-based learning at the core. Wes Kao summarizes the difference between these interactive online courses and their predecessors; “These cohort-based courses are engaging and real-time, not just self-paced, and involve community-driven, active learning, as opposed to solo, passive content consumption. They have a fixed start and end date, enforcing the real-time aspect and creating a scarcity within the abundance of content out there, and are often taught live. It’s the equivalent of participating in a college discussion seminar — taught by an expert in the field, unconstrained by geography or school rank — as opposed to watching a static video. And, importantly, there’s a built-in social contract in the form of the cohort.”
Live, two-way learning leads to greater accountability
Cohort-based courses like the HEC Paris Online Certificate Programs have a sense of focus and urgency thanks to the restricted timeframe within which they are taught. They also offer live sessions with instructors, active participation in conversations, applied learning exercises, polls, peer-reviews and breakout groups. It is these invaluable opportunities for exchange that not only hold students’ attention but also give rise to new ideas and force the students to consider different points of view. This is particularly true in cohorts with highly diverse academic and cultural backgrounds.
Wes Kao adds that another reason cohort-based courses can have more accountability is that they are bi-directional, as opposed to one-way. There’s a genuine exchange and flow of knowledge between the instructor and students, as well as between students and fellow students. “It’s a dialogue, not a static lecture.”
“Consumers pay for what’s scarce. And in today’s content-rich world, what is scarce in online learning is community.” Cohort-based courses such as the HEC Paris Online Certificate Programs fulfill the promise of online education, particularly as students often continue to support each other well beyond the course itself, forming a tight, internet-native alumni network.
*Inspired by the article In Online Ed, ‘Content Is No Longer King – Cohorts Are’ by Wes Kao
Read more about the HEC Paris professor-paced, interactive online certificate programs here.