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Cohorts in self-paced environments: do MOOCs make it easier

On Friday, I had a conversation with a colleague who asked how you create cohorts in a self-paced course/program. After all, in most courses you have a group of students theoretically all at the same place in the content, who should be able to carry on discussions and debates. Such a setup allows for the creation of a community of learners within the course structure–one of the  circles in the Community of Inquiry Model.  But, the traditional cohort (or should we say: default cohort model) is not easy, sometimes not even possible, to achieve in a competency-based, self-paced or personalized learning environment.

The easiest method is to have a large enough base of students that you can group students according to where they are in the content. It would function like the gaming sites that match you with awaiting opponents. The group can be as little as two students, who work together throughout the course or, if the course is not linear, two students who happen to enter the “game room” (or discussion forum) at approximately the same time. The LMS could be set up to notify students when someone has entered and posted a comment, for example…most do this now, so the student expectations of how this will work would be the only thing that would need some tweaking.

But, students can also create their own cohorts. The meetups that have developed around some of the MOOCs are one example of this. Cohorts are not the only way of creating a base of individuals that the student can interact with, and gain insight from. In reality, social networks can replace the cohort model. With a bit of research and/or guidance, there are many places in the authentic world where students could get feedback on ideas, thoughts, assignments, etc. and interact with individuals around a given topic. The benefit is that it can increase their professional and personal network.

There are many places where students can engage in a debate on a topic, post a comment, or submit their research for scrutiny. One site in particular comes to mind: PLOS ONE: http://www.plosone.org/ and all of the sister sites. Today, I found an article on PLOS Biology entitled “Right Brain Left Brain: Fact and Fantasies“. It was published on January 21st (less than a month ago). Below are the statistics for this article. Note that there is an area for comments. And because it is published using an Open Access license, others can build and contribute to this research easily.

PLOSBiology data on article: 7801 views, 917 PDF downloads

Manufactured cohorts are another option. These take creativity and time on the part of the ID and/or SME to create. They will not work in a project-based environment, but are possible in discussion forums. Students can make posts and respond to posts.

A bit of creative thinking can create a highly effective and engaging course without the use of a traditional cohort. In many cases the traditional cohort model was not that effective anyway. Students were only theoretically at the same point in the course, and points are often given for less than optimal participation.  The construction is really meant to serve schools, as it allows for easier grading (easier than assessing social networking assignments), easier construction of courses, and quicker ways of assessing the effectiveness of the given content as everything is normed. What all of this is, however, is not authentic, not experiential, and though often designed to use constructivist methodologies, its effect is often less that ideal–time is a factor that significantly impacts the ability of students to construct knowledge.


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