The Essential Guide on Cohort-Based Courses

A lot has changed in the past few years when it comes to online courses. For a while, it was all about having as much content as possible. Sixty hours of video and five hundred worksheets? Great! Ship it!

We might have thought that way once, but we know now that's just the wrong way to build a course. We want our course experiences to be more efficient—for both the course creator and the students taking it.

But online courses have continued to evolve beyond just more efficiency. It's about the experience people have around that content and how we can enhance their learning through extra guidance and community.

And this evolution is showing up in the form of cohort-based courses—” cohort” meaning a group of people, in this case, course students.

We're going to talk today about exactly what a cohort-based course looks like, how it'll deliver better results, and how to go about creating your own cohort-based course.

TLDR: they are the best means available to monetize the high end of online audience

Where cohort-based courses shine

🔄Higher student transformation rates. The built-in accountability of fixed start and end dates, active learning, and community support are an unbeatable combo.

🐾Faster feedback cycles for instructors and students. Instructors can react to students on the fly. Students get feedback on projects from both instructors and peers

💲 Easier to justify premium prices. Higher prices mean you need fewer students to hit the same revenue goal. Making a 6-figure living from "100 true fans" is a reality here.

🐱Almost impossible to copy. They are unique experiences shaped by the personalities of instructors, students, and the connections made

Why to Create a Cohort-Based Course

At first glance it would be online courses, broadly defined: virtual workshops, educational email series, paid podcasts, pre-recorded video courses, etc. Let's call all these "self-paced courses" for short. The problem with self-paced courses is they are just content at the end of the day, whatever word you use Content always becomes a commodity over time, because it can be infinitely replicated, doesn't involve a human, and there's nothing stopping others from taking it

And the biggest reason of all: there is now so much amazing content freely available everywhere that the bottleneck has become people's ability to pay attention, to stay motivated, and to put the knowledge into practice

The price ceiling on self-paced online courses is low because the average amount of value that people get from them (with a 3-5% completion rate and little evidence of real world application) is low

Cohort-based courses totally remove that ceiling, allowing followers to directly engage not only with the instructor, but with their fellow followers in an environment that provides accountability, feedback, emotional support, coaching, social learning

They are not as scalable as pure software, but a hell of a lot more scalable than learning in a classroom

🔇Social media and other platforms have made it easier than ever for many kinds of people to have sizable online audiences: influencers, thought leaders, YouTubers, bloggers, musicians, artists, podcasters, etc.

💱But monetizing those audiences has depended until now on massive scale: ads, subscriptions (usually only $5-0/mo), Patreon, Twitch, donations, merchandise, etc. This limits the people who can make a living online to only the biggest, most mainstream online personalities

💹For everyone else, they need higher price points from smaller, more niche but highly engaged and dedicated followers What would allow an online influencer to charge $500-$5,000 for something?

And the friction that remains makes it an excellent business: impossible to pirate (you can't duplicate an interconnected web of social interactions) and difficult for others to mimic (who don't have all the elements needed)

⏲Cohort-based courses are basically a way for online influencers to sell their time, which followers are willing to pay A LOT for, in a very highly leveraged way that can reach thousands of people at once

👨‍⚖️They allow "creators" cross the chasm into "teachers," where their life experience is more than just entertainment, but principles and habits and lessons that anyone who admires them (incl. most of their followers) can learn from Followers can actually follow, not just watch

Most online thought leaders create content for people who have more time than money: videos to watch, writing to read, podcasts to listen to, etc. But the high end of their audience has more money than time, and is willing to pay for active guidance to get results fasters

🍀This isn't only about money, although that's important to make it sustainable. This high-end audience also has the connections, specialized knowledge, followings of their own, and case studies creators need to take their business to the next level

👩Working with these people as peers provides SO MUCH amazing friendship, mutual understanding, examples and case studies, etc. You actually gain at least as much from these more experienced, established followers as you give them

Learning Loop with peers in Community

It's best to think of cohort-based courses as the cash cow of a full spectrum media empire, which most thought leaders seem to be building these days: the way to turn followers on all other platforms into customers and evangelizers

Eventually we will also see them reach truly astounding levels of profitability.

It's also not just about people with huge followings. Blowing up the price ceiling paradoxically makes it far easier to make a living much earlier: you can actually follow the ,100 true fans model when you're charging 5 figures per person

With cohort-based courses, you actually don't even need to get big at all. Better to serve a specialized niche, which also will pay more To make a six-figure living, you'd only need 100 customers a year at $k price. Or 200 customers at $500

Y Combinator is a seed startup accelerator with high prestige in the tech community which places huge emphasis on Cohort based learning. While YC isn’t technically an educational institution, it shows us the direction higher education is moving

You look at the early days of YC and the founders of Airbnb and Stripe and Dropbox and Reddit, were all in the same room, and you just look at that and you’re like, what was happening there? This really special moment in time? There’s not a lot of moments like that, where there’s people in a small area who are just clustered together and trying to make sure that you have those really high-quality people, then you think that we can run the best course possible.

Future of education - Cohort Based

YC is a model of the future of education, and there will be similar institutions that deploy some of these key features that make Y Combinator great.

🤴Creating Over Credentials - YC does not give a degree at the end of the batch. Rather, they focus on the output and progress of your company during the program. Their motto is “Make Something People Want.”

The incentive to learn is to build your startup into a successful company. The learning is practical, action-oriented, and output driven.

A focus on building and creating helps to align the incentive to learn with the learning environment.


The next generation of education institutions will be shorter and more intense.

Accelerators, cohort-based courses, and bootcamps have a short duration and emphasize intensity.

The goal is to learn the material and quickly apply it in the real world.

Rather than passive learning through a lecture like a MOOC, these institutions will treat intensity as a feature, not a bug. I’ve seen the benefits of short, intense experiences with The Tech Progressive and MyMBA.

📹Remote and Global

At the beginning of COVID, YC went fully remote. When they went remote, they were able to bring in larger batches and attract more global talent.

Education institutions will aim to be digital first and meet in-person second (We outline a model for this with Coder Community)

This trend will continue as learning remotely provides cost, scalability, and accessibility benefits.

Teach what you know and make millions

You can create a cohort-based course on Pensil in addition to offering paid memberships, hosting virtual events, and more. And the best part is whatever you decide to build with your Pensil is instantly available across web, iOS and Android which gives your members flexibility for how they interact with each other and your content.

Let’s build something great together.

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