Cohort-Based Learning (Online) – Learning Systems Hot Trend in 2023

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When I was putting together this post, I knew it would not be as simple as say, this is cohort-based learning, this is why it is so amazing, and why vendors are jumping to it, as well as folks in L&D. It is not as simple. There are pluses for doing it, and yes, cons. They are variables and factors to consider before jumping head first into it, and then espousing how it boosts knowledge, people retain more, and everyone is collaborating in such a way, that it taps into a combination of informal and formal (which cohort does).

Here are a few quick items to recognize before discussing cohort-based learning in the corporate side – regardless if you are in L&D, Training, HR, Marketing, Sales or some other department.

  • It will be a hot trend in the e-learning industry, especially around the learning system space, and even some HCMs that have a learning module. The trend is starting as we speak, err you read this, and by the end of 2023, it will overtake the whole skills hot trend (albeit, skills will still be very popular – and yes, is heavily tailored to a professional (office) workforce).
  • There will be learning system vendors, talent platforms, HCMs with learning that will say they have cohort-based learning, but lack all the key components (which will be presented below). If they are missing just one, it is not cohort-based learning. I want to stress, this, a vendor can say anything, but just because they say it or it appears in their marketing, doesn’t make it true. I’ve seen this firsthand with vendors saying they have LXP features or an LXP in their system, yet they lack all the key components/items that LXPs all have.
  • There will be learning system vendors, HCMs and others, that will say or show cohort-based learning and have really no clue what it is, where it came from (EdTech) and how to really tap into it’s power.
  • There will be learning system vendors, HCMs and others, who will do nothing – they won’t add or have any interest in cohort-based learning, because they will argue that “a client” or “clients” haven’t asked for it. This is by far one of the lamest excuses I ever hear, and I hear it a lot. That said, it does explain why a system may be behind the times, when it comes to forward thinking learning technology and functionality. As I note, if I never knew about X, then why would I ask if you have it?
  • As the person or persons who will implement cohort-based learning for your employees, members, even customers (and it is doable), it is required for you to know all the components, the pluses and minuses. I can tell you first hand, that if you rely only on the information you can glean off the internet or other so-called experts, who have never implemented cohort-based learning with e-learning and corporate, you will be led astray.

This is actually a two-part post, something I haven’t done in probably eight years or more. (I did it one other time, excluding awards).

Part one is the post on July 27th, 2002 (for those who will read this at a later date). Part two is the week of August 4th. The second part is going to continue from part one and contain research findings (based on a literature review, that I am conducting – Thesis or Dissertation anyone? Sorry, it is a common aspect of either of those two wonderful experiences).

If you are interested in conducting your own research, than fear not, the second post will include citations, and where you can read or find the information and dive deeper. I will be writing the second post similar to the way my Literature Review was written during my thesis days. It will be the first time, since my thesis, that I will angle a post in a more academic manner, so apologies upfront, because it will not include any of my wonderful sarcastic or snide remarks.

The challenge that I see as a whole when covering cohort-based learning is that the majority of data comes from EdTech, especially higher education. Now, you can argue well, it doesn’t matter, they know what they are doing. Respectfully, I disagree. Sure there are items you can extract to give some perspective, but you must remember that the common range of students at a university/college is 18-21 (adult learners 25+ are at universities/colleges, but they are not the core). There are K-12, tapping into cohort-based learning too, and I strongly recommend ignoring those, unless you have a child and the school is about to go this way.

EdTech with online learning has been a mixed bag, because it relies heavily on synchronous based learning – which means as it relates to the course and content. Again, I find vendors even in EdTech who are unaware what constitutes SBL.

In the corporate world, asynchronous based learning now referred to as self-paced learning, is the dominate form of learning. Even folks who go blended, usually have a self-paced learning piece.

Are they colleges/universities that have ABL (for the purpose of this post, I will refer to it as self-paced)? The answer is yes, but they are few and far between. You are more likely to find someone who still thinks CBT was the coolest form of learning and that online learning is no match to ILT (sorry Charlie Tuna, you are wrong).

From the United States standpoint, remote learning (the term coined for EdTech online learning) was a massive fail (overall) during the pandemic. It got an awful rep, which it still hasn’t recovered from. Are schools still using it anyway? Yes. But people still drove the Pinto in the 70s, even though it was a tinderbox with wheels.

EdTech SBL is based on three core items – which I mention here, because these three appear in cohort-based learning, and which you will or should see if your system offers it – BTW it is a requirement, err requirements as part of cohort-based learning.

  • Think ILT classroom shoved online – in that it contains a) Syllabus, b) Linear based format – i.e. step by step, until you pass the step, then you go to the next step (no self-pace for you), c)the instructor drives the process of learning – thus if they are active and strong online, then it can be very good, but if they are lazy or just awful online, then it will be miserable
  • The courses usually have a TOC (Table of Contents) this is because of the whole syllabus angle (at the corporate level, you may not see the syllabus angle, but the TOC should be there (honestly, it really must be, but again, people and systems may skirt).
  • Interactive and engagement are not core here. Having a click like hot-spot or watch a video or some other reactive approach is not real-time interactivity or engagement. Robust sim based learning isn’t happening here in the SBL format
  • Assignments are very popular and usually (as beyond the majority) a component of SBL. You have to complete these assignments and you have a set time to do so.
  • SBL taps into a time limit – as in you have until X day or time to complete the first step, and if not, you can get zinged for it (although on the corporate side, that is less likely to happen, what is more likely is the facilitator will just carry on)
  • Remember the MOOC craze? The format that is used is SBL. The completion rates still hover around 8 (eight) to 10 percent. That honestly is awful. Thankfully, with cohort-based learning and its approach, those numbers should not exist – however, I am writing here at this moment on the specifics of SBL and SBL only as it exists in EdTech and MOOCs which were heavily influenced around academia topics followed to the letter the SBL format.

Cohort-Based Learning

There are terms you will want to remember when you think or consider Cohort-Based Learning. It should never be an acronym, so any vendor who does this, should be forced to watch 100 hours of their CEO explaining the benefits of someone working there, with an awful green screen behind them OR one episode of TV show where the cops sang the whole time (yes, it did exist).


  • Transfer of Training (This is really mentioned, but is very relevant for cohort-based learning)
  • Activities
  • Problem-Based and Problem Solving
  • Guided – Very important
  • Facilitator or Guide (the latter ties around Guided, but you will refer to the individual as one or the other)
  • Mentoring – This is not the same as coaching. Not even close. You want the mentors (mentoring angle). It is a must for cohort-based.
  • P2P Learning – This means Peer to Peer
  • Community – It is a component of Cohort-based
  • Peer Collaboration – See above
  • Learning Pods – This isn’t mentioned in any article I have found around cohort-based, but I think it is very applicable in the corporate side of the house, and so much easier to explain to someone, when they think community – because it can go the extra level you want. Vendors are likely not to use this term, which is a shame, again, it makes so much sense to do so, and even show it – which is really cool.
  • Knowledge Sharing – It is a component of cohort-based learning
  • Network – A must. This is to me, one of the core objectives here in the end.

Lastly, I saw a comment that noted that cohort-based learning is the practice of it as the key and not the functionality. I disagree – you need both and parallel at that. This is not one first, other second. Hand in Hand.

Secondly, there was a comment that you may need to find other systems – to do all these items above. Again, you shouldn’t. A vendor who totally provides cohort-based learning must have all the components, it may not be great, but it may suffice. I will add that there will be vendors that go deep integration to say a solution like MentorCloud, because it can really take mentoring to a whole new level, includes learning pods, and just goes full throttle. Which, if it is is deeply integrated, you won’t know.

That said, you will find mentoring on learning systems who do not go deep integration with a third-party solution, which is there choice, all over the map. I’ve seen cool and I see a lot of “are you serious?”. Anyway, just an fyi.

Oh, for those who want to go multiple systems and want to use MentorCloud with a learning system, you can. They can integrate. I only mention MentorCloud, because at the time of this writing, it is the best (new) platform I’ve seen in 2022.

Cohort-Based Learning – What you need – If you are a vendor, you must have all of these components. ALL OF THEM. So if you want to buy a cohort-based learning system (and yes, there is one that truly is), and there are multiple vendors adding cohort-based by the end of this year, you will want to make sure they either have it when they roll out OR will add it before the end of 2023 (which means it is on their roadmap, and I surmise that many vendors rolling out Cohort-Based will not have all of these components, simply because they are not aware).

  • Synchronous based learning – They may call it something else, but the format I described earlier in the post exists here. Again, the Syllabus angle may not appear but a TOC has to, in this case.
  • Assignments – Yes it is part of SBL, but depending on how the vendor notes it, they could place it as not a direct part of SBL, but a feature that exists as part of the “community” – again, my preference is the term “learning pod(s)”.
  • Activities – A vendor may you this interchangeably with an assignment, but to me they are different. A workbook that you have to use daily or weekly or whatever, is an assignment. Think homework of some nature. An activity is collaborative with P2P learning – and knowledge sharing. It shouldn’t be, you do this, and I will do that angle – which you see in Academia – and which you run into the dreaded “dead weight” person in the group, who you gripe privately about, but say nothing to the professor, when they ask how it went in the group. Oh, you have experienced this with those “activities” in a seminar, where everyone is supposed to be contribute and one doesn’t.
  • Group Communication – Essential. I will cover some key pieces of Group Communication later in this post. As someone who studied theoretical communication, of which group comm is a part of it, there are some realities folks tend to forget when it comes to groups.
  • Guided learning – with either a facilitator or a guide (again, a vendor may use them interchangeably, but in this angle it is just semantics – so whether you want to refer to the person as a facilitator you can OR you can refer to them as a guide. Whichever you choose, stay with it, trust me, confusion will be here anyway, so why confuse more, when a vendor can do that for you? HA
  • Mentors – A must. I identify the ideal one you want further down below. You may have only one, but ideally you should have a few, depending on the number of pods, and size.
  • Network – Share Knowledge, Share the Experience, Connect within the cohort, and ideally connect outside of it (could be via vILT or meeting up somewhere, or whatever) – think of them, as being a collective to tap into at any point, any time of your career or membership (if an association) or again, whatever.

Let’s Discuss Guided Learning with a Facilitator

I’m going to use Facilitator as the term here.

  • Ideally it should be a trainer or trainers. Someone with a training background. If you recently or have former teachers on your staff that taught above sixth grade (thus at least 7th or eighth grade), they will work too. These folks have the knowledge already on how to facilitate. This is extremely important. If you are in an L&D department, you are likely to have someone who oversaw your ILT sessions or vILT or whatever you provided to folks on-site, for say even a leadership class. If you multiple trainers (regardless if it is L&D, HR or Training), pick the best or top ones. Not everyone is good a training, even if that is their role. If you are in a department or entity, that has none of the above, then find someone. Do not have Sal who works in marketing or sales who has no background in training or training/learning/educational principles) to facilitate. That is beyond an awful idea.


There will be people in L&D or Training or whatever title your company/association uses, some call them, Director of Education, that it is you only, and no one else in your department. I feel your pain – because I’ve experienced it.

However, fear not – there are a lot of teachers who are quitting or have quit teaching due to the recent events in 2022. As such, many are seeking jobs on the corporate training side. I understand cuts are coming or about to, but you may find someone who willing to be flexible, until the time comes to be hired full-time.

Never use a SME (who does not have a background in either training, L&D or education, above 6th grade level)

SMEs are wonderful for specific items, like knowing their subject inside and out, for example, you are creating a course in sales, and need a SME who knows everything about the cold calling, then that is the person you or whomever you have creating the course, talks to.

Think this way – you need to take your car into a place to be repaired. You want a mechanic who is an expert with that model or type of car. Thus they are a subject expert. Now would you want that same expert to facilitate your business skills class at your company? Highly unlikely.

Even though your facilitator will mostly be guiding via the SBL manner, either with a ILT aspect (Yuck) or VILT (yeah) and online courses/content (beyond SBL, yes, you can add self-paced here), if you think well, I can grab anyone to do this, you are going to regret it the moment you observe it – and if you are running L&D or Training or HR, you want to observe at intervals, without telling the facilitator ahead of time. Again, I speak from experience running training departments and then showing up without notice to see how my trainers were doing (even VLT back then).

Back to the List for Cohort-based Learning

  • I recommend no more than 10 people in each community, hence the benefit of using the term “learning pod” – You can have as many learning pods as you want, but once you go past 10 folks it becomes unmanageable and I can guarantee you will have certain members who are very active, some that are active, and some that are nearly non-existent, unless heavy peer pressure is placed on them, but even then, they will eventually drop back.
  • Another perk of no more than 10, is you can achieve a very active Pod. An ideal number actually is six per pod, but I get some folks just won’t be able or wish to do that. Remember, full P2P learning is extremely relevant an important here, and thus, going into the 50 or 100 or even 25 will become ineffective. And, you will have only one facilitator. Try to imagine having hundreds or even thousands in one pod, with one person facilitating it. If you have ever attended a seminar or webinar, how many people are really paying attention? Exactly.

Who is in your pod?

There is a lot of materials out there, that may no distinguishable approach on this, but I did find one, that really hit home and made 100% sense. Let’s go back to when you attended school – especially if you went to college/uni/2 year college).

Who was in your class? People will all different backgrounds and knowledge. Some come from large cities, some came from small towns. Some came from this state or country or province that was not the same as you. Different genders. Different perspectives. Different socioeconomic.

Different skills. Different ways of learning – and acquiring knowledge. I know there is a massive camp of folks who say learning styles do not exist, but forget that if they attended a college or university, they preferred a style or two. I preferred auditory, I didn’t have to watch the professor, I could just listen. Some people needed slides or something on a screen. There are some people who can study with music blasting, others who must have it quiet – this is not a learning style, though, it is with this example, learning preference.

The point being regardless of their style or preference they were in your class.

There were jokesters and serious folks. There were people you did not see every class (if it wasn’t mandatory) and if you did attend every class, those who were there like you. I am happy to report, that I did not attend every class for a subject matter, and achieved high grades – but I digress.

There were note takers, and folks who slept. There were folks who asked a lot of questions, and folks who said nothing. And depending on the person teaching the class, they were either engaging and espoused knowledge in such a way, that you got it – and thus liked them, OR they were dull and monotone and you decided, not to attend every class or to fall asleep in the back.

Speaking of which, think back to your time in school, even college/university. I guarantee you can think immediately of someone who made a huge impression on you, that you held or still hold in high regard – and think why that is? And you will remember at least one person, teacher, who was awful – and why was that?

The former made a difference in who you are, and what you have achieved – they were in essence a mentor. This is the mentor, and/or mentors you want to have in your cohort-based learning program. And if you can’t find someone exactly, and honestly, you won’t – which is why you hold the former in such high regard, you can find someone who exhibits some of those same traits or attributes, regardless if they are new to the company or have been there for a while. This is especially true for an association and their members.

All of this is mentioned here, because the epiphany I had when I read that article, is that to have the networking experience tied around P2P learning, with guided, you want people who are different than you.

When attending school, were all your friends just like you, with the same background, knowledge, skills, etc? Or where they different, even one difference? For me, different – even in grad school. I loved that.

When you are at work, have you met people who are not like you? They may have the same interests, but do they have all of your interests? Do they have all the same skills and at the same levels? Did they grow up in the same socioeconomic background as you? Same ethnicity? Same experiences?

And you like that, or I hope you do. You connect. You share knowledge, and provide insight and work together, in some manner even if you are not in the same department or location.

That is a shared experience. You can share and transfer knowledge, work together on a project or something else that is not job related (maybe a birthday party). You are connected at a whole other level, and you can learn new skills and interests, that you may decide to try out.

They maybe at different levels, ie. job wise, and have a different job, but connectivity and unity exists. That’s part of a cohort method, without even realizing it, you are part already of a cohort-based experience, even learning if you will – sans the SBL.

Therefore an ideal pod, should be people who are not the same. Who are in different job roles, different levels at the company – i.e. newbies, and folks that have been there for more than two years, or five or 10. They should have different skills and strengths. Even weaknesses.

You cannot attain an effective cohort-based approach with everyone being the same – same job role, same skills, some career goals or member objectives. You can’t learn with that. You cannot get the full power of cohort-based learning with that.

Bottom Line

I tried to limit the post in length and scope, and yes, didn’t do a great job at it. However, cohort-based learning isn’t a simple idea or process.

It has to understand that in groups, you are always going to have at least one leader – and if you ahve more than one, eventually the stronger of the other(s) will take charge. You have to recognize that the rest of the group, will follow whoever is the leader, but it doesn’t mean, that they respect or even will truly connect with them. And if there are more than one leader or attempts to be, there will be private squabbling going on- and you may not even recognize it.

You are going to have people who are not active. And those who are highly active. As the leader of the group, it is your responsibility to engage everyone. To collaborate, seek input and insight and have those individuals become a real part of the cohort. You must ensure that their ideas are incorporated in some way, activities ditto. You must appreciate everyone.

A cohort-based learning process online – can include self-paced courses/content – which is a great way to share new idea and insight. Allow folks to communicate those ideas with the others in the pod. They do not need nor should complete the entire self-paced course. That will exist – i.e. have to complete it all with your SBL course(s).


It’s not just a word that people love to espouse as a way to reinforce some attribute or thought process.

With cohort-based learning it must be a daily

Weekly, Monthly and yearly

Occurrence within each and every pod.

No exceptions.

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