Why learning together is the future of online education:

Something remarkable is happening with online learning. Let’s call it ed tech’s second wave.

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. And wow — there has been a lot of necessity over the past two years — and a lot of invention. For business leaders and companies, the massive social experiment that required shifting from in-person to online environments has reshaped how we think and design learning at work. We were already in an imperative upskilling, faced with ever-increasing demands on skill development and hiring challenges. The pandemic managed to accelerate those demands.

The first wave of ed tech started about 15 years ago with game-changing companies like Khan Academy, Udemy, Pluralsight, and Coursera. By making great educational content available as widely as possible, these online services worked to democratize learning. As an ed tech leader and an instructor to more than 200,000 online learners, I’ve seen how transformational this educational revolution has been. Millions of people have access to life-changing learning — delivered straight to their computers and mobile devices.

Following the ed tech revolution, we’re seeing an exciting and necessary evolution — one to address the elephant in the online classroom. The reality is that online learning engagement and completion rates are famously low. Learning leaders struggle to boost engagement, even when learners have access to content on almost every skill imaginable. Not enough people are making the progress they want with online education.

What is standing in the way? I see three core reasons: accountability, effectiveness, and connection. Without accountability to a schedule and other learners, people do not always have a reason to finish a course or even get started. What’s more, passive — instead of active — learning is less effective. (You do not learn to ride a bike by watching someone ride a bike.) Finally, being connected with a teacher and peers makes all the difference in learning and retaining material, especially in remote and hybrid environments.

This second wave takes advantage of the science behind how adults actually learn with modern conveniences we all expect in a world of instant gratification. Simply put, this evolution of traditional online learning builds on the benefits of asynchronous learning (taking a class on your schedule and where you happen to be at a given moment) and dramatically amps up accountability and effectiveness by layering on a cohort experience (a group of students who support and strengthen what you’re learning).

1. ACCOUNTABILITY IS A GREAT MOTIVATOR:

Early in the pandemic, a common joke was how we’d never be able to tell ourselves we would be more productive if we only had the time. The truth is, a goal without a plan is just a wish. And learners without a plan are most likely a little lost.

When you put learners in a group together and give them a plan, you amplify their learning ability. The opportunity to learn from one another and see others progress offers a sense of belonging in a dynamic group, which bolsters motivation.

After all, you are not working in a vacuum or an echo chamber — neither of which are effective learning environments. An ideal program plan has elements of choice: You can choose when to work through curated content but within a set time frame. You are given milestones and deadlines to complete at your convenience. By having a schedule where you must learn the material and finish the course, students complete the work. What’s more, working in a group of learners makes you feel beholden to them and your instructor.

2. LEARN IS A VERB:

When I think of online education as a whole, too many people and products focus on “What is the knowledge I need to share with people?” instead of “What do I need to do so that learners will learn?” It’s like handing learners a book and saying, “Great, I did my part,” instead of designing an experience that ensures learners will not only learn the material, but are energized and excited to learn it (which leads to greater retention).

Learning is a verb — and we have to rethink how we design effective learning experiences. At my company, we design eight-week “learning journey” programs that combine independent learning with live workshops. We connect learners with experts and practitioners. Plus, we provide opportunities for learners to collaborate and hone their skills with lab practice settings and business-relevant projects.

These kinds of active and social offerings motivate students. Compare this with someone staring at their screen for hours, simply listening without practicing or receiving feedback on their progress. Which do you think achieves better learning outcomes?

3. LEARNING THROUGH CONNECTION:

Alongside innovation in workplace learning, we’ve seen previously unimaginable shifts in where employees work. Many employees have spent the last two years at home — and they do not want to go back to their offices. This physical isolation presents unique challenges for companies during a time when retention is difficult and resignations are climbing. Employees who have connections at work are significantly more likely to have job satisfaction, higher performance, and longer tenure.

Online learning builds connection — a commodity we crave in today isolated world. Cohort-based education can provide a way out of this solitary confinement, offering many of the best qualities of in-person instruction. When implemented correctly, learners can meet with instructors for one-on-one meetings, have break-out sessions with fellow students, or participate in full-class interactions with the teacher and students.

I like to think of cohort-based learning as the modern water cooler where you meet your colleagues and build relationships along with learning new skills. When implemented well, this new wave of online learning, based on how people really learn, works because you are inspired and pushed to a new level by other learners. Or, as the ed tech evangelist Steven Anderson: puts it, “Alone we are smart but together we are brilliant.”


Shelley Osborne is an ed tech and learning expert and the Head of Learning at Modal:

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