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The importance of community in online courses

The importance of community in online courses

Over the last year, we have seen the emergence of cohort-based courses (CBCs). Like traditional face-to-face college-based courses, CBCs have a fixed number of learners who work through a programme together led by an instructor. What opportunities does this create for instructors who want to create online courses with embedded communities?

Forte’s recent article on the rise of CBCs highlighted four phases that online learning has gone through in the last decade.

In the first phase, MOOCs pioneered by elite universities such as Harvard and MIT brought courses that were taught offline into an online environment. Examples include Udacity and Coursera.

In the second phase, marketplaces commercialised online learning by allowing anyone to create and sell any course. The platform took care of finding students and referring them to the content they might be interested in, in exchange for a percentage of the sale. Examples include Udemy and Skillshare.

In the third phase, toolkits emerged. Toolkits adopted an instructor-friendly approach, treating the course creators as their most important customers. Instructors were no longer seen as just suppliers. They are brands that need to “rent the infrastructure” required to manage their online courses. Examples include Thinkific, Kajabi, and Teachable.

According to Forte, the first three phases solved the following instructor problems: - how to get content online

  • how to make money
  • how to own an audience

But until now, there was little to no emphasis on the instructor-learner relationship. There was also minor consideration for any supporting learner-learner relationships.

The fourth phase of “cohorts” promises to fix this, by providing the much-needed structure and accountability that people need to succeed in their learning.

The humanness of cohorts is inherent to their success. To understand the difference, think about the one person you would want to learn from the most. Would you rather watch one of their pre-rerecorded lectures? Or sit at a computer or whiteboard with them (virtually or physically) and have a lesson?

Now imagine doing this within a community of like-minded individuals who are as passionate about the topic as you. A community can provide what content alone lacks - a sense of seeing and being seen. A contingent, human-feeling relationship with instructors and other learners engenders trust. It also creates a motivational, bilateral relationship required for productive learning.

A recent Harvard University study highlighted the importance of “serve and return” interactions with infants, which are said to shape their brain architecture from early on. When an infant babbles, gestures or cries, an adult’s response allows the infant to build and strengthen neural connections in their brain that support the development of communication and social skills.

We can extend this rationale to students of any age. When humans engage in a reciprocal, contingent relationship with each other in a learning community, we can expect learning outcomes to improve.

However, the ephemeral nature of cohorts come with their own caveats.

First, there’s some inflexibility regarding assignments and the course’s pace.

Second, there could be some difficulties in communicating with peers if learners are in different time zones and do not have continuous access to the internet.

Finally, instructors have to contend with “the scale paradox”. This paradigm is effective at a low scale but can break when stretched. In short, the quality of teaching declines as you scale the number of learners.

In the past, a course was a vehicle for delivering the knowledge in the instructor’s head to learners. In years to come, that will change. Instructors need to plan for creating courses that are not just one-way information flow. They must place learners in a primary position to contribute to the experience.


Forte, T., 2021. Why I’m Investing in Circle. [online] Forte Labs. Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2021].

Forte, T., 2021. The Future of Education is Community: The Rise of Cohort-Based Courses. [online] Forte Labs. Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2021].

Mather, T., 2020. A New Paradigm For Education Technology. [online] Medium. Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2021].

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2020. Serve and Return. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 February 2021].

Nash, S., 2018. Moodle Course Design Best Practices. 2nd ed. Birmingham: Packt Publishing, pp.92-94.