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Creating a community to support a cohort-based course

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When you tell friends and family you build online courses, you may hear some ask, “How is that different from reading a book online?” or even, “Why would someone buy an online course, when they can just watch YouTube videos and learn for free?” It’s easy to follow the logic of questions like this. But as a course creator, you know more than anyone the value of an online course. You know a course’s value lies not exclusively in the content but in the format: the way you guide learners to an outcome through a combination of information, practice, and interaction with other people. Cohort-based courses, or “CBCs” for short, take this idea one step further. And creating a community to support a cohort-based course takes it one step beyond.

A perfect match: community and cohort-based courses

Cohort-based courses, or “CBCs” for short, take this idea one step further. In CBCs, creators guide a group, or cohort, through a course together at the same time. They also have a couple of key differences to standard self-paced courses. Firstly, they often run with smaller or limited-sized groups (This very author runs a CBC for community-builders that’s capped at 15 students per cohort).

Secondly, they often sit at a higher price point than evergreen courses. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a CBC to run in the thousands, whereas self-paced courses are typically in the hundreds. Lastly, CBCs derive much of their value from shared experiences with other students. This makes them a perfect fit for pairing alongside an online community. In this article, we’re going to explore some best practices for creating an online community to support cohort-based courses.

Start with purpose

As with any community instance, starting with a strong sense of purpose can help you stay focussed on delivering real results for both your business and your students. And, there are a couple of common reasons to build a community to support cohort-based courses.

Increased learning outcomes

Course completion rates vary significantly. Some industry reports suggest average completion rates can be as low as 5%. Therefore, adding accountability to your students’ experiences can help them stay on track and help you deliver brag-worthy outcomes that become social proof in the future. For context, the CBC this author runs for community builders has graduation rates well over 90%.    

Adding value in between or after courses

By nature, CBCs are time-bound. And when they end, you run the risk of losing touch with your students. A community can have the double benefit of  serving students after the course ends and maintaining an active channel of contact to let them know when you have a new offer. 

Adding value through network

Oftentimes, the biggest selling-point of a CBC is not access to the course content alone, but to the other qualified individuals going through the course. Offering a community to support your cohort-based course gives that value space to flourish. It also allows you to talk about it in a concrete way. 

Solving logistics and the “single contact channel”

Lastly, it’s important to remember that getting a group of people through an experience at the same time requires some logistics. By establishing your community as your primary channel of contact with students, you can help everyone stay on the same page. You’ll also avoid confusion coordinating things like homework, feedback, or meeting links. 

The strongest community strategies align business outcomes with community member outcomes. So, it’s important not to simply assume which things will be most valuable to your community members. We recommend doing some lightweight user interviews with prospective students prior to locking in your community’s purpose. For example, you may assume that networking is most valuable. But in reality, students may find it more valuable to stay on top of logistical info like due dates and meeting links. It’s always beneficial to ask. 

Piecing it all together

Even if you have a crystal clear sense of purpose, you may still need to give some thought to how your CBC community fits into the rest of your business or existing community. This usually means considering how cohort members will interact with other members of their own cohort and with other students outside of their cohort.

A common set up is to create a private space just for a specific active cohort. (You may expect this space to be more focussed on logistics than other areas of the community.) Later, you can still give them access to a broader community of students, either of past cohort alumni or students of self-paced courses you also offer. 

The cost of community

However you decide to architect your community, make sure to consider how cohort members can continue to get value from your larger student network once their cohort ends. You will also want to consider how your community impacts your pricing model.

It’s not uncommon for CBC builders to charge a subscription fee to access a community once a course ends or to simply consider a community a large part of the value proposition that influences price to begin with. You may also find the community adds so much value to students across your CBC and self-paced programming that it’s “worth it” to offer it for free because of the impact it has on course sales. 

Create thoughtful programming 

Regardless of how you price it, your community will be a big part of the value proposition you communicate to your prospective students. Because of that, it’s important to make sure your community actually delivers additional value beyond the course curriculum. Many beginner community-builders will make the mistake of expecting their community to be an “if you build it, they will come” experience. But, by planning just a small amount of thoughtful added programming, you’ll already create one of the best community experiences your students have seen. 

Whatever programming you include, it should serve your purpose. Most likely, it should enhance learning and make it easier for students to complete your course. Here are a few programming ideas that work well with CBC communities:

  • Weekly, drop-in based office hours with the instructors 
  • Ritualized peer feedback days where students can share work with fellow students 
  • Optional guest speakers and instructors that are relevant to both current students and alumni 

Your CBC community is also a great place to test new content and respond to student requests for supplementary materials.

Test, measure, and iterate

An important element of community building in any context is to maintain a testing mindset. It’s important to always continue testing new ideas and programs and measuring their impact. There are a few major ways we recommend doing this: 

  • Try comparing the completion rates of those who had the benefit of the community and those who didn’t. If your programming is effective, you should see an impact on completion rates. If not, it may be time to try something new.
  • Always survey CBC students at the end of each cohort. Specifically ask about the community component. This author usually asks a multiple-select question that lets students say what outcomes they got out of the community, including things like accountability from peers, social connections to peers, logistical information about the course, and more. There’s usually an optional, open-ended question about the community that helps spark new ideas and identify blind spots in programming. 
  • Measure engagement rates within the community. While these can be limited in what they tell you, they do provide a good snapshot of whether your students are actually using the community experience you’ve built. If other numbers (like your completion rates or your survey data) aren’t doing well, this info can help you identify if you should focus more on teaching students how to use the community and building habits, or improving the quality of programming within the community. 

Lean into the “power of the CBC”

If you’ve ever tried to launch a community before, you may know that garnering early engagement is often one of the biggest challenges of new communities. However, CBCs in particular have a few built-in components that give you a special advantage in this. Being aware of these and leaning into them can help you optimize the experience for yourself and for your members.

The big advantage a CBC gives to a new community is that it’s time-bound and happens alongside high-quality programming. Because of this, it’s easy to build “circles” into your course that promote engagement in your community. For example, try ending each lecture with a prompt to continue discussion within the community.

Similarly, you can position your community as a necessary logistical component of your course, rather than an optional supplement. Try having students “submit” homework for peer feedback within your community, rather than via an email or file request to ensure they’re regularly using the community. More often than not, once they already have it open, they’ll also use it to interact with peers.

Designs like these can help you use the time-bound nature of your CBC to build long-lasting habits of community usage. It can also build community “super users” that add value to your entire business, even between cohorts. 

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Building communities with purpose

Author: Noele Flowers, Noele Flowers is the former Community Manager at Teachable and an expert in building communities. She's currently at Commsor building education for community managers. In her free time, she loves cooking, writing music, and home brewing kombucha.

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