Why is online cohort-based learning so popular today?

May 23, 2022 by Robert M. Burnside

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“Houston, we have a problem.” This famous statement by the astronauts from the spaceflight in 1970 is one of the first space-to-earth communications. The message: things were not going well. Looking at how L&D is currently functioning on the earth, we could as well say, “L&D, we have a problem…”

In a way, this problem is born of a great opportunity. L&D's mission has never been more urgent. Organizations today are pressed with rapidly changing technology and the multiple complexities caused by the pandemic. The way we work and do business is changing, from the transition to remote and hybrid work, to agile and digital transformations, to an increased and much-needed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is much work to be done, and for companies to be successful, learning must be at the center of it.

Yet at many organizations, old processes and old attitudes about learning are getting in the way of progress when it comes to ensuring learners have the skills and capabilities they need to thrive in this uncertain environment.

These old approaches simply won't work today. We can no longer solve new problems with past knowledge. The "sage on the stage" can no longer be the source of truth within a learning experience. Old learning methods may have been useful in their time, but too often, they relied on knowledge created by a few experts addressing a set of stable, broadly shared circumstances. The conditions are different now. Nobody knows exactly how the business landscape will evolve. Things are simply moving too fast for an expert to bring “the answer.”

Now, we need learning that moves just as quickly as our world.

How cohort-based courses create knowledge

What to do? Rather than looking to experts or years-old learning content for insights and new ideas, we should look instead to cohorts.

Cohort-based learning is popular today because it mirrors the way we must work and create knowledge now: in teams. Now, the best learning brings together a diverse set of people for collaborative, active learning, rather than mimicking an old classroom where the instructor lectures, while learners take notes silently and rarely interact with each other.

Cohort-based learning provides a method where diverse audiences can think through problems and solutions together, in a framework focused on a central business need, using prompts that invite creative ideas. Digital learning in particular opens new possibilities for making the cohort as diverse as possible, leading to better and more innovative solutions to the stickiest problems organizations encounter. While live learning is simply too limited by time zone differences, digital asynchronous or semi-synchronous cohort-based learning allows colleagues from across the globe to connect with others in the flow of their work, at the times that are most convenient for them.

Cohort-based learning example: a global HR capability academy

One example of global online learning using cohort-based methods is Nomadic’s Josh Bersin Academy. This digital cohort-based HR academy brings together Josh Bersin’s cutting-edge research, top expert and practitioner voices in the HR field, and a global community of over 30,000 HR professionals. Learners can debate and dig into solutions for the variety of challenges facing HR, deepening their understanding of new ideas together.

The Josh Bersin Academy is just one example of a successful learning initiative that's meeting learner needs today. Similar capability academies can be developed within and outside of organizations, bringing learners together around shared functions or goals. But to do so effectively requires a mindset shift within L&D.

A revolution in L&D

As a field, L&D must move away from from the slow processes of forming internal programs to instead using creator platforms, where existing knowledge in the organization can be quickly and easily formed and distributed, in days rather than months.

Now, it's essential that L&D be able to deliver timely new knowledge efficiently and in a cost-effective manner, with continual iteration built in to any initiatives to allow for adaption to rapidly changing conditions.

This means developing awareness of latest online platforms, a facility with online technology, and revised course design methods, amongst other capabilities.

“Houston, we have a problem…”

After overcoming the problem with the spacecraft and learning from the event, the astronauts were eventually able to walk on the moon. Let’s do the same with L&D, co-creating the bright future that is possible when people learn together.


To learn more about Nomadic's semi-synchronous cohort-based learning, download your free copy of our report, Why the Future of Learning is Instructorless. In it, we explain how we designed our Academy to put learners at the center (rather than an instructor), to foster lively debate, and to make the learning immediately relevant to cohort members' daily work.

Interested to discover more about what Nomadic’s cohort-based Academy can do for your organization? Learn about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.

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