The birth of the internet has brought many advantages to modern society. The most important is certainly the ability to share information faster and without geographical barriers. Today, all human knowledge is online and the majority of the western population has free access to it.
Once knowledge was something difficult to access and for the elites, used to train the ruling classes of the future. Today, this is no longer the case. The internet has evolved over the years, it has become more and more interactive and the amount of information exchanged every minute has increased dramatically.
Among the greatest innovations that the internet has brought us, a profound change in online education is definitely one. Online education has evolved over time and today we can say that it has reached its most advanced stage. The introduction of the Cohort-Based Courses model is the one that comes closest to traditional university education but with infinitely greater possibilities given by the fact that the course takes place online in a virtual environment.
In this article we will review how the online education infrastructure in recent years has evolved from the first MOOCs to the first Cohort-Based Courses and how this is leading to a true democratization of learning.
The evolution of the software infrastructure for online education
Massive Open Online Courses: MOOC
The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by writer and researcher George Siemens on the occasion of an open course entitled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in which 2300 students participated online, free of charge.
The meaning of the acronym MOOC is as follows:
Massive: a large number of people can participate at the same time
Open: everyone can register and attend, no prerequisites are needed, the teaching materials provided have no copyright and can be shared
Online: Courses take place only on virtual platforms over the network and not in physical classrooms
Course: each teaching is divided into a course and then again divided into several sessions
We can consider MOOC as the first step into the modern era of online education, thanks also to the adoption of this type of technology by the most renowned universities in the world such as Harvard and MIT which have started to release free courses on edX and Udacity.
What they did was to bring the courses and lecture materials that were established offline to these platforms in order to share them with a number of people who couldn’t afford the expensive tuition from these universities.
In 2012 the New York Times wrote an article entitled “The Year of the MOOC”. However, already in 2013 the limits of this approach began to be seen. As Tiago Forte writes in his blog Forte Labs: “The problem was that the people who tended to successfully complete the MOOCs were the same highly educated people who already had a degree. And even then, completion rates were very low.”
This was also shown by a study by MIT where researchers documented “low retention rates and enrollment declines” – the rate of completion of courses by students plummeted from 56% in 2016 to 3.13% in 2018.
Today, the MOOC is still an excellent low-cost tool to partially move courses from offline to online and if this pioneering technology is to be recognized for having given an essential boost at the beginning of the online education revolution, at the same time it is not the perfect way to solve the problems that led to a low level of engagement by students, and so it could not become a real alternative to traditional education.
Monetizing knowledge: Online Courses Marketplaces
With the emergence of online course marketplaces like Udemy, for the first time in history, teachers could monetize their knowledge by selling online courses to a large audience of students.
The birth of these marketplaces corresponds to the increase in demand for new professions linked to new web technologies. In the last 15 years, hundreds of thousands of new startups has brought a new wave of innovation.
The speed with which these companies were created did not allow universities to adapt fast enough and go at the same speed of innovation. Universities could not offer practical courses on each new skill in order to give students the necessary tools to undertake a career path in new areas of expertise such as digital marketing, SEO, virtual reality, and advanced programming languages.
Consequently, marketplaces in these areas have replaced the traditional syllabus offered by universities. With over 155,000 courses, a platform like Udemy is able to offer all kinds of topics that get refreshed and updated continuously thanks to its community of zealous teachers.
Online course marketplaces give teachers a unique opportunity to be able to focus exclusively on creating the course content without having to think about finding clients as they are able to generate traffic and leads on the platform, always bringing new customers to teachers. Suffice it to say that Udemy has 24 million enrolled students.
The problem I encountered when I happened to buy a course on these platforms is that the topic covered by the courses failed to reach the one of a university course. The courses generally last a few hours and can be useful for giving a general smattering of a certain topic, but the student finds himself at the end of the course with a low knowledge of the subject of interest.
This is mainly due to the pricing policy operated by marketplaces. Prices are sometimes discounted by 90% and with high commissions, due to the cost that marketplaces incur when having to find new customers for teachers. The high commissions and discounted prices do not incentivize teachers to create more in-depth and higher quality courses.
The low cost of the courses has also created another negative effect: students tend to buy more and more courses for a few dollars ($ 10- $ 20) without ever actually completing them, causing the completion percentage rate to drop, once again, as in the case of MOOCs.
However, we need to recognize that the marketplaces have been a turning point in the evolution of online education. Thanks to this phenomenon millions of teachers made an appearance on the internet for the first time with the unique opportunity to monetize their knowledge and teach to an unlimited audience of students.
Build your own online academy: SAAS
The turning point in the online education market is due to the creation of platforms such as Teachable and Thinkific. These services have allowed teachers everywhere to build their own school online in minutes at the cost of only a few dollars a month.
The most popular teachers who had a huge following on marketplaces, however, needed tools to set up their own business independently, on their terms without being harassed by marketplaces that arbitrarily managed their course prices and marketing. To fill this need, SaaS platforms were created and had a huge impact in the world of online content creators, comparable to the impact that Shopify has had on the world of merchants.
These tools, Shopify for online commerce and Teachable for online courses, have the same purpose: to help entrepreneurs create their online business without wasting time on building a software infrastructure.
I consider these tools revolutionary and I’m personally grateful for their invention. In 2018 with my company GoPillar, a marketplace for architecture services that has a community of over 100K architects, we decided to build a section dedicated to e-learning with the aim of helping our designers to improve their skills with architecture software such as Autodesk Revit, Sketchup or 3D Max.
In universities, architects are trained on the theory but hardly ever use the necessary tools they will need in their daily work. We wanted to change that and build a video library with in-depth courses to teach how to use the best software in the industry. We didn’t know where to start to build the platforms, then we discovered Teachable.
This service allowed us in less than a week to go online with the first course, test the market and start monetizing. Today, GoPillar Academy is making millions and has developed its own platform. Most likely if we hadn’t used Teachable early on and spent months building the platform, we would never have been able to bring this service to market at that speed.
At a low cost, these services provide all the software infrastructure necessary to build an online school: website, payment method, curriculum construction, video player, quizzes etc. To build your own platform requires months of development and tens of thousands of dollars of initial investment.
The weaknesses of this model can be found in the teachers’ lack of ability to use online marketing methods to constantly find new students. Teachers would have had to learn online marketing skills such as Sales Copywriting, SEO, Online Advertising etc., skills that could only be managed by structured schools with a proper budget.
So now, most of the budget was not invested in the creation or improvement of courses but rather in the paid acquisition, through advertising channels, of new clients.
It went against the expectations of students who bought dozens of self-paced courses and were faced with dozens of asynchronous course hours (pre-registered) and self-assessment quizzes without ever having real feedback from the teacher. In this case as in the case of MOOCs, despite the fact that they had an extremely positive impact by breaking down barriers of starting up and the costs of the infrastructure to build an efficient online school, they still have failed the students and the teachers.
In 2020 with the COVID19 pandemic, a new practice was established, that of live streaming courses using videoconferencing tools such as Zoom. Although the pandemic is a worldwide tragedy that will be remembered for the next decades, it has accelerated some processes, bringing to the fore a new way of online teaching.
Online learning has evolved yet again, but this time in a different way: while past innovations focused on how to solve teacher problems, i.e. how to do online courses, how to monetize them or how to create an online academy, now the focus has finally shifted to the students’ side: how to reliably deliver the promised results by providing online education that can really compete with offline education.
Cohort-Based Courses: Learning, Community, Impact.
The most important modern innovation in the field of online education is called Cohort-Based Courses (CBC) or Cohort-Based Learning (CBL). It refers to a group of students who participate together in an online course during the same period of time.
The amazing thing is that the most important modern innovation in the field of online education is none other than applying the traditional method with which traditional education has always been taught.
From elementary school to university we have been used to taking courses structured in this way: a group of students start a course together for a certain period of time and they complete it together.
Where is the revolution? In a simple detail: Previously, students would buy a course from Udemy or Teachable and would get a pre-recorded 2, 5, or 40 hour course to take on their own without any human interaction. A Cohort-Based Course instead will allow students to learn together. This might seem like a minor difference but it really isn’t.
In fact, it is scientifically proven that collaborative learning is more effective than learning through passive lessons.
Online learning today is mostly passive. Students take pre-recorded courses for dozens of hours without any interaction, with no opportunity to discuss, without feedback or the ability to ask questions, as the teaching is completely impersonal.
This type of learning isolates students, it can lead to depression and anxiety or more simply to boredom and and a lack of involvement in the learning process. It is therefore not surprising that studies have shown that low completion rates in MOOCs are, in large part, caused by unmotivated and disengaged students.
Cohort Based Learning, on the other hand, translates into “peer learning”, a shared and engaging learning, in which the same students share their understanding with each other as the course progresses.
Peer learning leads to better performance. Those who participate in this type of courses, who compare themselves to each other, have a greater involvement in the subjects covered in the course they are taking and a greater propensity to stick to it in order to always stay at the same level as other students and be able to participate in future discussions and students’ feedback sessions.
With Peer Learning another interesting dynamic takes place: the students themselves become their peers’ instructors. It has been shown that students who are better prepared and are willing to share their knowledge with their peers have a better chance of getting the message across than the teacher.
This is because the student who has learned a new concept has truly understood it and is able to rephrase it in an effective way for other students to grasp it.
At this point we have to ask ourselves why this formula has not been applied previously. As I have already said, Cohort-Based Courses are a teaching method that we all know.
We learned it in primary school, together with our peers, with real-time interaction, under the guidance of a teacher, we were there, learning together in the same classroom. Replicating this format online was actually not easy until recently but now it is possible thanks to the access to an ever-expanding high-speed internet and to tools such as Zoom, which have not only become common but have made video conferencing for large groups reliable and easy to use.
The main features of a Cohort-Based Course are: Community, Cohort-based and Collaboration.
Community The history of human beings tells us that learning always takes place in the community in a collaborative way. Students observe and learn from their masters and then come together and share impressions, which leads to discussions.
And then the magic of learning takes place: the creativity process and the boundless desire of human beings for knowledge develops. The comparison between peers is essential in learning in order to reach levels which, with solitary learning, it would be impossible to get.
Cohort-based Courses have a fixed duration, a start date and an end date. This determines a sense of temporal scarcity. The cohorts won’t last forever and this increases the students’ responsibility to participate in the lessons, especially if they are carried out via video call in real time.
Students create relationships during the lessons both with each other and with the teacher: a sort of mutual expectation is created that induces students to introduce themselves and follow the lessons live.
This creates a sort of FOMO (fear of missing out), a sort of “anxiety” to stay in continuous contact with other people’s activities, and the fear of being excluded from rewarding events, experiences, or social contexts. This is one of the main reasons why Cohort-Based Courses have a completion rate of over 70%.
Collaboration This can only happen through active learning, which takes place in a live group. The passive learning typical of pre-registered courses is not able to replicate this type of experience.
In a live environment, interactions are created between students who can exchange advice and feedback, during video calls external guests can be invited and students can be put at the center of the discussion.
Conclusions: Shaping the future of education
We have seen how it took decades to arrive at a model that can compete with the traditional one used in universities. Early models such as MOOC’s were too unbalanced and impersonal.
The Cohort-Based Courses, on the other hand, can achieve both objectives that each school should set itself, namely that of creating a positive impact for students and ensuring that teachers have full control over their courses and monetizing their content.
This online learning model is really a valid alternative to the monopoly of education given in universities, increasingly elitist and bureaucratic environments unable to keep up with the times. As the startups have shown, the greatest innovations come from the bottom up and the same thing is happening in the world of education, where experts from all sectors can become teachers and build their own more open, flexible and innovative online schools.