The Online Learning Revival

The Online Learning Revival

June 29, 2021

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Every soul craves to fill the void. 

By Lailah Gifty Akita

Every Sunday at around 10 am I find a dozen excuses to skip my online church service.  But here I am, at 5am, on a zoom call, wrapping up a live workshop called Approachable Design. It’s a two day online studio led by Nate Kadlac, where non-designers get together to explore the inner designer in all of us. The workshop started at 1am on my UTC+9 timezone and 4 hours just fly by. My partner of the day is an apparel designer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a creative advisor for the course who has gone through her own journey in search for her design taste. We interview each other to resurface memories and personality traits that serve as sign posts towards the right visual direction. By the end of the session I have a Figma board with images that weave and connect the keywords fished from our interview. The goal is to create a color canvas that speaks to us. I can look at the board and proudly say, “Wow, that’s me”.

Nate is based in Los Angeles. I, in Seoul. And all of this is happening with a group of 17 people, spread across the globe, from Tunisia to Thailand, in real time. This is the post-pandemic online learning in vogue and it has it’s own name, cohort-based course (CBC). Unlike self-paced solitary coursework, CBCs have a live component. You can watch the replays, but the actual classes are held live. The unique chemistry that takes place during that zoom, with those headshots in the gallery view, is just as fleeting as in real life and mine to remember. Through courses, I met among others, a retired 40-year old man who is based in India and wants to focus on creating content that promotes slow-life and play in adults. I also met a former architect who plays music, writes, and now teaches a writing course, based in New York. I recently recorded a Racket with the former and signed up for a CBC taught by the latter. My chances of connecting with these people offline are none. Zero. 

So what happened to the church? The online church hasn’t worked so well for me. I was part of a women’s group and that too fell apart once we stopped seeing each other face to face. The early church encountered something so different, so true, so good that couldn’t stop people from wanting to take action and get involved. Online learning has been that for me. New, inspiring, and character building. I’ve become a strong advocate of courses just like I usually am about my faith. 

While going from breakout to breakout room, I’ve grown as a professional, teacher, and human being. I’ve matured emotionally and spiritually, and I’ve become more open and loving. I’ve become aware of how big the world is and how generous humans can be, and am humbled by it all. These are all principles that I’ve learnt through my Christian faith. While it has been tough to connect with a digital form of church, I can’t help but notice the similarities between cohort-based courses and my personal experience at churches. Both have a focus on drawing a unique perspective that is relatable to the audience. They thrive in building deeper connections through peer supporters. Course takers eventually become course creators, reinforcing the viral nature of these courses. Just like the church was originally intended to be.

It’s not about the content but…

For the word of God is living and active. -Hebrews 4:12

There are around 37 million Christian churches in the world today. They all teach off one book, the Bible. Despite the single source of truth, each preacher interprets the text in their own way, fusing their own experiences with ancient text. You might be familiar with the story of the “Prodigal Son” but when you read “The Prodigal God” you get to read the popular parable of the father with the two sons from the lens of Pastor Timothy Keller. Most interpretations focus on the prodigal son who leaves his father, squanders his inheritance, and returns to a father who is generous and waiting for his son with open arms. Keller’s version of the story shines light on the older son, the other son nobody talks about, the one who stayed with his father and got jealous his brother was treated with a feast despite violating trust and running away. Keller draws a much deeper conclusion about people’s genuine intentions and God’s generous character, that boils down to the fact that neither son deserves God’s unconditional and free love. The same event can prompt new interpretations and be touching or transformative in unique ways.

When people take Building a Second Brain (BASB) in 2021, they might not be aware that many of the concepts were initially inspired by "Getting Things Done," a 2001 book on productivity by David Allen. Course creators themselves say that it’s not just about the content. Wes Kao recently published an in-depth piece on this very topic, that content is no longer at the center of learning. I’ve recently taken Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain. I’ve watched over 10 hours of his footage on YouTube, including an old recording of what looks like a company workshop, circa 2013.

Most of the content is not spectacularly novel. But Tiago brings his unique perspective, weaved in with his personal story, and re-packages it under the BASB brand. What started as a workshop inspired by David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” for his co-workers evolved through multiple iterations to become a personal knowledge management icon, and a 7-figure online education and productivity startup, Forte Labs. His content hit a cord in ways previous messages didn’t.

No matter how old or widespread, there is always an angle nobody has explored, a new perspective, and room for a new twist. 

What else do online courses offer besides content?

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. - Proverbs 27:17

In college I attended a large campus church of about 800 students. I used to go to the Friday night meetings and Sunday services with the main sermon, similar to a keynote at a conference. While these were inspiring and thought-provoking, even better were the weekly group discussions, where you could dive deeper into the messages from the larger meetings. People gathered in smaller numbers, and openly shared their deepest struggles. Groups had names like pods, cells, or small groups. The names varied from one church to another but all had the same purpose: to understand a Bible passage or a particular topic in more depth within a community and found the connection with our own lives.

The model worked. When in small groups, I felt more open to share, others did too. Learning how people were planning to apply the teachings into their day-to-day, or what their roadblocks were, helped me relate better with the Bible and also build accountability. Sharing paved the way for connection, and connection led to stronger bonds. I still talk to some people from previous groups. A friend flew all over from San Francisco to my wedding in Seoul.

A similar model works on cohort-based courses. With cohorts of more than 100 people it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. But when you are part of a smaller group led by a mentor who has been on your shoes in a not so distant past, you have guidance and feel supported. One of the reasons why I enjoy Khe Hy’s Supercharge Your Productivity course is because of its community. It’s a course about creating systems to get things done but at its core, it is a deep survey of all the things that we want to achieve and ruthless pruning to what matters most. It’s an emotional and personal journey. What makes this course a success is the high-caliber group of mentors who lead the pack by being vulnerable and generous with their time and personal space. As people in the course share what works for them others follow suit.

Mentors offer an inside look at their systems, share what they struggle with, and students get to choose what works best for them. Every session becomes a celebration of what makes us human with a gentle nudge to safely land on the next step. So far, it’s the only course I opted in for its lifetime edition. The magic of these courses not only takes place during the main lectures but also during these smaller, intimate, and more personal sessions that I used to skip. The sense of belonging happens in the chats during the Zoom calls and breakout rooms. I was used to just listening to the main speaker and taking notes. But people bond over private chat messages and make new friends during breakout sessions. Ideas like writing online or personal knowledge management can be broad and many times we need a guide who can give us a walking tour, who can wait until everyone gathers, who can take little breaks to help someone catch up. Guides who share personal anecdotes, how they ended up where they did. Not only these mentors or guides are helping us digest what we learn in the main lectures, they are much closer to us in their learning journey and are more relatable.  

While communities can grow large as people gather around a big idea, it's the mentor groups where leaders emerge and create space for people to connect.

Are cohort-based courses going viral?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit  . - Matthew 28:19

I always wondered why God had chosen, out of all things, unscalable people to be at the center of his distribution. Jesus could have chosen two hundred disciples.

Instead he chose twelve.

Today there are almost 2.4 billion christians in the world. Even within the christian church community there are over 45,000 denominations globally, reflecting the iterative nature of religion. But it all started from twelve, which started from one. 

At the forefront of this shift towards a modern cohort-based learning was the AltMBA. It’s described as “an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.” It was a unique offering at the time, but now it’s the foundation for almost all CBCs. It’s too early to show evidence of the virality of cohort-based courses but I’m certain it’s close, if not here already. A few alumni from Write of Passage by David Perell have started offering courses, including Performative Speaking, The Writing Studio, Minimum Viable Video, Approachable Design, etc.

Platforms like Maven are building an online infrastructure specifically made for cohort-based courses. On Deck, a platform where “top talent comes to accelerate their ideas and careers’ has recently finished their first cohort for course creators with 150 students. In no time we will be fully booked with a full course line-up.  Just like in the early days of the church, people have had a taste of learning and have been  transformed. The gospel of learning, within a community, unbounded by geography is too good not to spread and pay it forward.

What can the church learn from cohort-based courses?

I’ve been so humbled, inspired, challenged, and touched by some exceptional people online, that I could have never, ever, ever, met had I not taken those courses. The online education ecosystem has allowed me to connect with people from unexpected backgrounds with brilliant minds. To me, this openness of the online, decentralized education looks more like what Jesus had in mind. 

In the Prodigal God, Pastor Timothy Keller’s says Jesus's teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.

People are in need of loving communities and whatever provides this, this is where people will gather, in mass.

Most courses and communities I’ve enjoyed were started by a single individual. It takes ONE soul to re-imagine and propel forward a vision to create a course or start a community. 

Through my renewed hope in online learning I’ve recently taken the initiative to revive my women’s group. I’ve taught the group leader how to use breakout rooms, I started sharing the same way I do in my online courses, and the result has been encouraging. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen more attendance, more participation, fewer awkward silences, fewer technical challenges, and just like that, I felt more connected to my faith community.  Some instructors are still renting the online stage to display their content. The courses that’ll continue to succeed are the ones that own the medium and re-imagine the course with the digital interaction in mind. 

Online education is having its moment. What will make this movement transcend depends on how it helps people drive growth and build meaningful relationships. It’ll also be up to the content, its re-imagination, and power to transform lives. The sweet spot will be offering content and connection that is honest, life-changing, and worth spreading.