Shelley Osborne is head of learning experience at Modal, an employee education platform built with cohort-based, hands-on, and expert guidance for critical skills. She’s also the author of The Upskilling Imperative: Five Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Celisa Steele talks with return guest Shelley Osborne about cohort-based learning, including what it is, why it’s so valuable, how to do it well, and how to scale it. They also talk about mastery learning, psychological safety, and the future of learning.
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[00:00] – Intro
What Is Cohort-Based Learning?
[01:30] – What is cohort-based learning?
Cohort-based learning has many definitions. In some circles, a cohort is simply a group of people doing any kind of learning together. At Modal, Shelley and the team have tried to live up to a more advanced definition of cohort-based learning.
So we absolutely are set on the community aspect of it. We want to bring people together and rely on the social connection of learning. We know that, when people learn together, they learn more deeply, that they make more connections, that they’re able to broaden their understanding. But we also think that a cohort needs more than just a group of humans together.Shelley Osborne
They’ve layered in pieces related to accountability and driving people from the beginning point to the end point. They are very intentional about making sure the learning outcome is achieved, meaning that those who go through the cohort-based experience can demonstrably show what they’ve learned at the end and are able to put that into action in their work.
[03:35] – If you had to make a case for the value of cohort-based learning, what would you lean into?
Cohorts have always been about bringing people together, and there’s value in doing that because learning can be very lonely. That’s one of the most important aspects of the human side of a cohort-based learning experience: You’re never alone.
The learning experiences they’ve created at Modal not only bring a group of learners together, but they include experts, coaches, and other practitioners as a source of support and connection. That way, when learners hit that block—which every learner should and will—there’s a way to get through. Traditional online learning experiences that are asynchronous have value, but there’s often no unlock when a learner hits a stumbling block.
I think that’s one of the most powerful and impactful parts of cohort, but it’s not always built into the experience, believe it or not. Often it’s just, okay, let’s put the people together, and magic will happen. And, yes, some good things are definitely going to happen when you put a bunch of really cool, smart human beings together. That’s inevitable. But where you actually unlock and tap into the power of cohort-based learning is where you give folks the key to unlock their troubles, where they can push through the unknown, the uncertainty, and actually get that aha moment.Shelley Osborne
Cohort-Based Learning in Action
[05:59] – Would you share some of what you’re doing with cohort-based learning? What does that look like in action?
At Modal, cohort-based learning experiences are built around three things:
Connection is about creating intentional places and spaces for people to learn from one another. You can’t throw people into a cohort, whether in person or online, and expect the benefit of cohorts to come to life. You have to be intentional. One of the things Shelley and her team have done with their cohort-based learning experiences is creating communities of practice where people are able to learn from one another.
Learners are able to see the work other workers are doing and get direct feedback from experts and coaches (with opportunities for one-on-one bookings to get help the moment they get stuck). Each learner is different and has different struggles. Shelley works to create environments that support the learners’ variety of knowledge and experience.
Some people are super motivated learners and can make progress on their. Many others need more support and nudging. To help, we should create learning experiences that pull people from point A to point B by using accountability metrics and levers that get people to go through the experience. The cohort is one of them because of the social pressure. Being in it with other people is critical.
Shelley advocates pacing learners and determining when they unlock access to the next set of materials. Most online courses are open and ready for learners to work through at their own pace, but that’s actually demotivating for most people.
At Modal, Shelley’s cohort-based learning experiences emphasize mastery learning. If a learner doesn’t get something right the first time, there are opportunities to try again. A learner completes an assignment and submits to a coach for feedback. Then, if the learner didn’t hit the mark, she has helpful, substantial feedback to guide her on how to revisit that work, resubmit it, and ultimately achieve the learning outcome. And a learner can do this endless times because using the dynamic of the coaches, experts, and the community to help a learner get to the desired outcome is more associated with real-life work than a one-and-done test approach.
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Takeaways on Cohort-Based Learning
[12:50] – What works well and not so well when it comes to designing and implementing cohort-based learning?
Effective cohort-based learning is hard and not easy to pull off because it’s an incredibly dynamic experience. It’s a blended experience that requires multidimensional components. Shelley has been involved in creating interventions that are timed to support learners, using data and metrics. All of that has been really fascinating, but it’s not a simple thing to pull off, and it requires a lot of people to pull it off well.
Another big takeaway is the need to provide for psychological safety and to foster a growth mindset so they can support learners who don’t necessarily come prepared and open to learning this way. For those who had very traditional schooling experiences, this kind of cohort-based learning is a totally different way of learning than what they’re used to. Those with the very traditional schooling experiences might show up just wanting to pass the test or finish the class, and the idea of mastery learning is foreign to them.
Modal has learned a lot about how to create psychological safety in learning and help learners understand that the feedback is meant to supportive, not critical. Learning providers have to battle the mindset help by some learners that they’re done learning when they finish college, and now that they’re at a job, they’re just supposed to be a professional.
Psychological Safety and a Growth Mindset
[16:15] – How do you create psychological safety and foster a growth mindset? What does that look like in practice?
Part of it is as simple as telling learners that the feedback is offered in a supportive way. And it’s more. There are things you can do to make learners feel safe and supported. Feedback is fuel. It’s important to frame feedback as a supportive mechanism to support participants’ growth and learning.
Be aware of the language you use and the tone. Position the coaches as there to help learners get unblocked and to help them work through challenges. Shelley and her team are very intentional to have a positive, encouraging tone threaded through the entire experience, whether print on the screen or in an e-mail or the talk track a facilitator might use in a live session.
What Cohort-Based Learning Looks Like
[19:07] – What does your kind of cohort-based learning look like?
At Modal, cohort-based learning is a blended asynchronous and synchronous experience. Learners go on their own through a platform Modal has built and where content has been curated and built. Learners also come together weekly for live sessions that involve different ways for them to connect and deepen their learning. Groups break off to work on challenges and projects together.
At Modal, they talk about the experience being “fun-fessional.” It’s professional, but it’s fun and supports the psychological safety necessary to learn. Learning involves making mistakes and hitting challenging moments. It’s important to prepare learners for that. It can feel like an attack on the ego to not be good at something, all of a sudden, particularly at work, where learners may worry about their job security if a learning experience deals with things they don’t yet know how to do.
We have to let learners know that growth happens in discomfort. When we create learning experiences, we have to make it feel like it’s not a huge risk and the stakes aren’t keeping your job or not.
Cohort-Based Learning: Average Length of Time
[24:22] – Is there an average length of time for the cohort-based learning experiences you develop?
Modal has a variety of lengths, from two to eight weeks. Shelley’s standard rule is that the content tells you how long to make the experience. You try to be reasonable and to fit into the constraints of the organizations you’re building for, but the content ultimately tells you what’s possible in any given period of time, and Modal is especially attuned to that because mastery learning is what they want to achieve.
If you’re focused on ensuring you can walk people up to higher levels of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., synthesis or creation), you need a certain amount of time to be able to achieve that.
Cohort-Based Learning: Typical Number of Learners
[25:48] – How many learners typically participate in these cohort-based learning experiences?
Modal has been experimenting with cohort size because there’s so much that can be changed by how many people you involve. They’ve tried very small groups up to 100. They see some sweet spots in the middle. You want learners to feel like they’re in something with a bunch of people and to be able to learn from one another. They are currently finding about 50 people to be effective, but they still have more learning to do around that.
Cohort-Based Learning: Ratio of Coaches to Learners
[26:49] – Is there a target on the ratio of coaches to learners?
They’ve been playing with the coach-to-learner ratio too but haven’t yet cracked the nut. What Shelley knows, though, is that, when they get learners talking to coaches early in the experience, then learners access the coaches more frequently throughout the experience.
Barriers to Cohort-Based Learning
[27:57] – You said doing cohort-based learning well is hard. Given the potential advantages of cohort-based learning, why don’t we see more of it? Are there barriers to designing and implementing it that are more specific than just it’s hard?
It is hard, so that’s part of the answer, but it’s overly simplistic just to leave it at that. Shelley thinks often cohort-based learning experiences are one-offs. An organization might build its own in-house experience for one topic or one skill. It requires a lot of moving parts and operational capacity to handle all the moving parts, which makes doing it once hard and makes scaling and replicating it even harder.
To do it well, to actually really tap into the potential of why cohorts are useful, you need to have this surround sound, all-encompassing, really dynamic experience, multidimensional, that isn’t just throwing a bunch of people on one Zoom.Shelley Osborne
Another barrier is our approach to technology. The pandemic forced many organizations online. We stalled out, just turning the camera on and recording stuff, in an effort to be super efficient. Although that was efficient, it often wasn’t achieving learning outcomes. We’re in this moment where we’re realizing, easy doesn’t get the job done. We have to think more intentionally about how we use technology to create learning experiences and figure out how to do it well, in scalable ways, to achieve our real learning goals.
Scalability is important because organizations that do it in house are often able to support just one offering because they’ve also got so much else on their plate. They’re not typically charged with just doing cohort-based learning, so it’s hard to keep a steady drumbeat of these experiences going.
Advice About Cohort-Based Learning for Learning Businesses
[31:09] – What advice do you have for learning businesses that are looking to add cohort-based learning as a meaningful part of what they offer to their customers and learners?
Shelley’s biggest piece of advice is helping people push past the ego. The idea of a growth mindset and learning agility seems abstract, but it’s absolutely necessary. It’s what powers the learners through it. If that’s not done, you’ll only ever achieve so much.
The State of Lifelong Learning, Continuing Education, and Professional Development
[31:56] – How would you describe the state of lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development today?
We’re seeing massive macroeconomic factors: inflation, potential recession, reductions in force (RIFs), and layoffs. And we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. What is fascinating to Shelley above all is that learning wasn’t on the chopping block the way it was in previous versions of this story.
If you think about other big crashes, learning was immediately cut. That didn’t happen this time. In fact, in the real heat of the pandemic, there was a huge surge in learning and development roles because organizations had to figure out how to determine their new future, support hybrid models, and guide people through this experience. Learning businesses are now business-critical to support these massive challenges that organizations are facing.
This is an opportunity for us to help create the future of work, move organizations forward, and support upskilling in resource-strapped companies. There’s an opportunity learning businesses to rise to the occasion.
The Future of Learning
[35:32] – When you think about the future of learning, what comes to mind? Are there trends or developments that you’re watching more closely than others?
Shelley says she may be biased, but she has her eye on cohort-based learning. We’ve taken incredible first steps, and waves of innovation have shaken up educational technology. Now we’re on the next wave where we need to tap into the effectiveness.
There’s more focus on ensuring that learning experiences achieve outcomes, particularly outcomes that are tied to the business strategy. This has been a missing part from some conversation, and learning hasn’t always operated strategically. We now need to be very intentional and effective with the experiences we’re creating and ensure that they get people to higher levels of skill acquisition and achievement.
Changes in Higher Ed
[37:37] – Anything else on your mind that we haven’t yet had a chance to talk about?
We’re seeing some massive changes in higher education. We’re seeing decreases in enrollment in colleges, related to the fact that some institutions have had a hard time transitioning online. But we’ve also seen a trend where colleges aren’t giving learners the skills needed on the job, so lots of upskilling has been required.
We’re seeing organizations being far more forward-thinking about how they create internal learning or partner with external learning vendors to upskill people in their organizations. It’s been a trend, but it is hitting an absolute peak moment.
Celisa notes that sometimes what gets touted from the university or college experience is the social aspect, although that isn’t always tied learning. But cohort-based learning, when done right, provides a social aspect.
Shelley references an article about mere belonging and the idea that even a simple social connection improves your performance in learning experiences. While those experiences in college are not always educational, feeling like you belong somewhere or having a connection with other individuals at the institution is shockingly useful in supporting performance and learning. Social is what people have been missing during the pandemic, and it’s extremely important.
[41:13] – Wrap-up
Shelley Osborne is head of learning experience at Modal and author of The Upskilling Imperative: Five Ways to Make Learning Core to the Way We Work. You can connect with Shelley on LinkedIn.
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