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.
The concept isn't exactly new. Cohort-based learning has been around for a while. (You may be familiar with “schools” and “classrooms.”) But when it comes to online education, cohort-based courses have come to the fore thanks to people like Seth Godin and his altMBA program, which a lot of very successful people have gone through.
Credit for coming up with the altMBA concept actually goes to someone named Wes Kao—and she's our special guest here today. Wes is a cofounder at Maven, a platform where you can create and teach your own online cohort-based courses. In fact, I and a couple of my teammates on Team SPI have had the privilege of taking a cohort-based course from Wes and her team on how to do our own cohort-based courses. We're now running several “boot camps,” as we call them, where we lead a group of people through our courses in a more structured format, with accountability, working hours, and group collaboration.
We're going to talk today with Wes 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.
Wes is co-founder of Maven, the first platform for cohort-based courses. Maven helps creators build a cohort-based course and deliver an incredible student experience at scale.
Previously, Wes was the co-founder of the altMBA. Under her leadership, the altMBA grew from zero to 550 cities in 45 countries in three years of high growth. She designed the altMBA's beloved coaching system, grew the global community, built the marketing engine to drive sustainable acquisition/retention, and built a team of 40 people to support rapid scaling.
Before the altMBA, she was Special Projects Lead for Seth Godin HQ, where she produced bestselling Udemy courses, hackathon days, the 7-day Your Turn Challenge, and the bestselling Leadership Workshop. Prior to this, Wes led digital marketing and brand management at Flite (acquired by Snap Inc), Bare Escentuals (Shiseido), L’Oreal, and Gap Inc. Her work has been published in Fast Company, Inc, and Entrepreneur, and she guest lectures at UC Berkeley and Harvard.
In 2017, Wes was selected for the Singularity University Global Solutions Program fellowship on climate change, held at NASA Ames with a full scholarship from DB Pharmaceuticals and Google. She serves as a mentor for Backstage Capital and WeWork Labs. Wes received her B.S. in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
- How Wes's experience with massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided the spark to create something better
- The path Wes took from altMBA to expanding the cohort-based course concept and founding Maven.com
- Why more freedom can work against you when it comes to online courses
- How cohort-based courses help learners put more “skin in the game”
- The components that make up a cohort-based course, and how to mix and match them to suit your students' needs
- How to price your cohort-based course
- The “state change method” Wes uses to keep participants engaged during live workshops
- Why the interactive moments of a cohort-based course experience are so special (even for introverts!)
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SPI 513: The Untapped Potential of Cohort-Based Courses with Wes Kao of Maven
Things have changed quite a bit since I first started business back in 2008. I started out with a blog, and I could just, in a way, hide behind the blog, and my keyboard and do well, and I did. Then we started to find that people wanted to learn more about who it is that was creating this content, and that's where I started to show up on YouTube and on podcasts and other forms, livestreams and social media. This is when we start to build trust and authority, and our communities are a big part of how people learn with each other, online courses, and how people learn has changed quite a bit.
For a while, it was all about as much content as possible, right? The more content in an online course, the more valuable it should be. But that's actually not true. I once heard recently a case for somebody who was saying, “Well, the reason why I charge more because I have less stuff in my content, or because it only takes me 10 minutes to do something for you versus 100 minutes, is I'm charging you for the 10 years it's taken for me to be able to do this well and with quality in just 10 minutes,” which is really interesting.
But online courses specifically, it was always like, okay, well, 60 hours of video and 500 worksheets. I think we all know now that that's just the wrong way to do it. We want things that are definitely more efficient, and more to the point and less work, the better. But even beyond that, online courses have taken a little bit of a different route now where it's not just about the content, it's about the experience, in and around that content. It's not just the setup, and then, “Hey, go get this content and you're on your own now.” It can be guided.
There's this thing called cohort-based courses. Cohort, meaning a group of people, or a group of students. This was actually something that, it's been around for a while, obviously, there's always been cohort-based everything. Classrooms in school are cohort-based, right? But when it comes to online, cohort-based courses were really made famous by people like Seth Godin.
What a lot of people don't know is Seth Godin, and his program, altMBA, which is very famous, a lot of very successful people have, in fact gone through it, it was actually invented by somebody else. Her name is Wes Kao, and she's our special guest here today. I and a couple of my teammates on Team SPI have the privilege of working and learning with Wes. In fact, we took a cohort-based course from Wes and her team to learn about how to do cohort-based courses, because this is something that we actually do now.
We've run several, we call them boot camps, but they're essentially cohort-based courses where we lead a group of people through our courses, but in a more structured format, with accountability, with working hours, with group collaboration. We're going to talk today with Wes about exactly what this means, how it looks like, how to sell it, how to position it, and how and why you could charge a lot more for it, and why you get better results. How to structure these lessons and all this stuff. We're going to unpack it all today from the inventor of the modern cohort-based format, Wes Kao over at Maven.
Maven.com is a place where you can go and set up your cohort-based course, that you could sell, and then you can house your students in, and we're going to check that all out today with Wes, in just a moment, right after the intro. Here we go.
Welcome to the Smart Passive Income Podcast, where it's all about working hard now, so you can sit back and reap the benefits later. And here's your host, he wants to build a secret underground bunker with an arcade below his house: Pat Flynn.
What's up, everybody? Pat Flynn here, and welcome to session 513 of the Smart Passive Income Podcast. I'm so excited for this episode, because we get to chat with a person who we've learned from, Wes Kao from Maven.com. She's going to unpack everything for you about how to create a cohort-based course, how to launch it, how to run it, all that kind of stuff. We'll talk about the history of them too, and just why they're something you should consider when it comes to what you have going on in what you're offering your people online.
Especially if you have online courses, like we do, just regular, general, self-paced online courses. This is what has been our business for the past four years, you can add cohort-based courses on top of them, and that's exactly what we've done. We've had Power-Up Podcasting for so long, and then we added a boot camp on top of that, for, I think it's a six-to-eight-week program to help people through it.
We did the same thing with Email Marketing Magic, and we also ran a cohort-based course for the first time first before creating the digital version of that course, and that's called Heroic Online Courses, in fact, where we teach people how to create a digital online course. Man, the results are unmatched. The relationships that are built are unreal, and those groups are still together today. Even though it's been weeks and almost months past some of them, they're still together helping each other out. It's so amazing, and you hardly get that with just digital courses. Here she is, this is Wes Kao from Maven.com. Let's talk all about it, all about a cohort-based course program.
Wes, welcome to the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Thanks for joining us today.
Thanks, Pat. Really excited to be here.
I'm excited to not just dive into your story, but get into cohort-based courses, because this is what you teach. You're the cofounder of Maven.com. I got to say, just upfront here and publicly, thank you so, so much, because what you've given me and my team, as far as education for helping people with cohort-based courses, has been absolutely amazing and life changing.
We just wrapped up a big cohort-based course, for us, and thanks to you and your help, it's just gotten so much great feedback. Thank you so much for that.
Absolutely. It was amazing working with you and your team. You guys were awesome.
I got to say, though, cohort-based courses and being a student of the one that you put on for us, it's a completely different experience than just taking a DIY online course. I'd love to know a little bit about how you got into where you're at now, and what drove you into teaching and creating Maven?
My journey into online learning started in 2014 when I packed up my bags in San Francisco and moved cross-country to New York to work with Seth Godin. Initially, I joined as special projects lead. One of my first projects was building a Udemy course for Seth. As I started looking into the world of MOOCs, I realized that completion rates were super low, anywhere between 3% to 7%. A bunch of people were starting; optimistic, excited to take courses, but a tiny percentage of people were actually staying long enough to finish them.
Seth and I started batting around some ideas for what are ways that we could potentially flip this on its head? Were MOOCs really the end-all-be-all? We started playing around with a couple of different ideas, and we thought, What if we literally did the exact opposite of what MOOCs do as a start? Instead of everything being asynchronous, where you are watching videos by yourself, what if we had no pre-recorded content, and everything was live, and you were doing it with a group of people instead of solo? What if instead of it being affordable, and inexpensive, MOOCs are $10 to $50 a course? What if the course were expensive enough that students felt like they had skin in the game, and it would help keep them accountable? What if instead of passive content consumption, it was all about active, hands-on learning? Instead of watching an expert tell you what to do, you actually put those lessons into practice yourself with feedback, with time for iteration, with time for practice. You were discussing, debating, role playing with students around you who are equally excited about the topic?
Putting this all together, led to the altMBA. It initially started as a project that we were going to do once and see how it would go. I was personally skeptical in the beginning. I knew that when you brought people together in a room, that, when you're breathing the same air, you feel transformed learning together. But I wasn't sure if we could replicate this online. At the time, Slack and Zoom were still fairly new in the mainstream, and people weren't really sure, can I meet strangers on the internet with video? Can I really learn deeply with a group people who I've never met?
From day one of the altMBA, when we got everyone together in Slack, everyone together in Zoom, in their learning groups, it was just pure magic. People were jiving, they were connecting, they were talking with each other, they were DMing each other, and it just took off. For me, that was a really exciting turning point where I realized there was something about this format that was really, really special. For the next three years, Seth and I built the altMBA from the ground up.
I hired out a team, grew the alumni community to 500 cities in 45 countries. After those three years, there was another question which popped up, which was, Was the altMBA an anomaly in some way? Was it something about Seth's content, about the audience we're working with that made this all work? Or was this a format that could be replicated with other creators, other experts, other functions, verticals and topics? That's when I left the altMBA to do consulting directly with creators and helped Professor Galloway from NYU Stern build up Section4, and his proprietary sprint.
I worked with the co-founders of Morning Brew, Alex and Austin, to build their Morning Brew accelerator course. Worked with William Yuri, the negotiations expert from Harvard who worked with President Carter, to turn his material into a cohort-based course. Worked with David Perell, Tiago Forte, worked with a bunch of creators on a bunch of different verticals and proved out the concept that yes, this actually does work with different verticals.
Which brings us here to Maven, starting Maven last fall, and now working with amazing creators like yourself and your team. Eighty-some creators now in our current cohorts who are teaching to build cohort-based courses, and just seeing the field expand and seeing creators realize that, “Hey, this is an amazing way for me to share my knowledge and monetize my expertise, while building my community,” has been really, really exciting.
That is incredible. What a résumé. For those of you who are listening, you're like, okay, you keep hearing this term, MOOC, what is that? That is short for “massive open online course.” A cohort-based course is essentially the opposite. It's not massive, and it's not open, it feels more closed. As a result, the members who are in there can feel closer together and work closely together. I know this, having just gone through your cohort-based course through Maven.
Can you describe for us, what are the specific things about the cohort-based course that are different from the MOOCs that really allow these students to succeed and excel within it? What are the big differences that you just can't get in a DIY kind of situation?
With MOOCs, there's almost too much freedom. I think all of us have experienced procrastinating, have experienced saying we want to do something and then acting against our own best interests. I personally have signed up for a bunch of different MOOCs over the years. I think I have a hand lettering calligraphy course in Skillshare somewhere, and a classical music course on Udemy.
I've taken maybe a lecture or watched half a video before saying, “Oh, there's something else I got to do. I'm going to come back to this.” Because I can go back to it at any time, because it's evergreen, and it's on demand, all these other things that pop up, that are distracting, that feel more urgent, take me away from going back to completing that course.
The thing about cohort-based courses, because they have a set start and end date, and you're doing it with a group of people, there's way more of a sense of urgency that compels you to focus while the course is in session. If the course is two weeks, or four weeks, or three days, during that period of time, you feel much more focused on the course than if it lasts forever, and you could really go back to it forever.
That's one piece. I think the other piece is the community element. I think that people were never meant to learn alone, solo, processing ideas themselves. We learn so much better when we are surrounded by people who are excited about learning the same thing as we are. There's definitely an emotional and social element to learning that isn't just about knowledge transfer and facts. If it were just about that, then we could all get textbooks on any topic, read through them without ever feeling burnt out, and just learn anything we want to. But that's really not the way that we learn.
The thing with cohort-based courses, the community aspect, the peers, the feedback, coaches, if the course has coaches, all of these elements serve as hooks to keep students coming back, to keep students accountable, and it really holds the instructor, and the course grader to a higher standard too. I talk about the content hierarchy of BS, where the base of the triangle is tweets, and then above it's blog posts, podcasts, or Clubhouse. Then at the tip of the triangle, at the very top, it's cohort-based courses, because there's less room to hide.
With a course, your students might ask you questions in front of 100 other students, and they might question your material or they might go down a rabbit hole. That live element adds a lot more of a temporal urgency to the learning, and it also increases the stakes to make sure that the creator themselves has their act together, that their material is defensible, that they have expertise to back up what they're teaching, because students could potentially challenge them when they're live. That opens up a lot of great discussion where both the creator learns something new, and then students are also teaching back and teaching each other.
It's bidirectional, as opposed to one-directional. That all adds that urgency and community feel that gets students much more excited about the material.
That's so great. I know that when you're in a cohort-based course you can feel that excitement. But I'd love to talk, before we get into the nuances of perhaps how to structure a CBC. How does one sell a cohort-based course to an audience when it is like, “Okay, this happens at this time on this date”? It's very specific. I know that one of the benefits of selling a DIY or a MOOC is, like you said you could take it at any time and that is of benefit to, for example, a potential student because they can fit it in when they can fit it in. How do you sell the idea of, “Hey, this is when classes happen. This is time that you'll have to allocate.” It feels, on the front end, like it's going to be a lot more than what you might have to expect out of a DIY. How do you sell that? How do you position it?
If you think about traditional learning, almost all of it is cohort-based. K-12, higher education, going to college. College started in the fall, you graduated in the spring, it was four years. There were times when you had to be in class. This idea of learning in a cohort-based ways is not new, per se. It's more new to online learning because MOOCs and DIY on-demand courses were the only option for a while.
With cohort-based courses, the live component definitely is an important piece. There are certain courses that run twice a year. David Perell's Write of Passage, for example, Tiago Forte's Build a Second Brain, these all run twice a year. The altMBA runs four times a year, Anthony Pompliano, Pomp's crypto course on Maven has been running every month and a half or so. It's only been five months since he's launched his first cohort, and he's already run four cohorts.
It really depends on the creator, and how often you want to run your course. The live piece is definitely a feature and not a bug for the right type of student. I think that on-demand DIY courses are amazing for a certain use case. If someone wants to learn on their own, they want that flexibility, they want to be able to take the course whenever they want to, and mold around their schedule, the DIY format is great. Even in our own course, the one that you and your team took, Pat, we're moving some of our material into prerecorded videos. That opens up time during the live sessions that we do to spend time doing things that you can only do live; group discussions, breakouts, guided exercises, giving feedback, doing live critiques so everyone can learn from us critiquing an instructor's project.
There are definitely use cases for doing prerecorded. With the right type of student, a certain type of student, on the other hand, the live aspect that there are start and end dates, that there is less flexibility, that's what helps that kind of student show up and actually do the work. Tiago, for example, I saw a tweet that he wrote, I think like last week, where he said that the only way that he can learn nowadays is cohort-based, that he just can't compel himself to learn, read, watch videos, et cetera, without accountability in place, somehow.
I feel the same way: after experiencing and helping to build so many cohort-based courses, it's really hard for me to go back to learning with purely DIY, because I have a pretty short attention span; I get distracted easily. Those start and end dates, that's really part of what I'm paying for, is getting myself to show up, putting skin in the game.
I think of it as a creator having a portfolio of different products, different digital offerings, and you might be selling emooks on Gumroad, you might be tweeting or writing a free newsletter, you might have your DIY course, and then you may do coaching, and you might have a cohort-based course. All of these offer something different to different segments of your target audience.
That's exactly how we're positioning it as well. We have the cohort-based courses. In fact, on top of, and in addition to the DIY versions of that, already. We did a podcasting boot camp, for example, which was a cohort-based situation on top of our pre-existing course. In fact, the interesting thing about that was 100% of the students who took that cohort-based course, were people who had already purchased the digital course and had yet to get started, which was just again... They were just like, "Well, I bought it, because it was something I needed. But I just didn't have the time or I needed more structure and accountability, and here we go. Here's a CBC and now they have a podcast."
Even though it is a higher price, you're right, the live component is, in fact, a feature, not a bug. I love how you frame that. Let's talk a little bit about the actual cohort-based lessons and modules. How is this going to be structured? How is it typically run? DIY, it's simple. Modules and lessons, you watch them, you move on to the next one. But how is a cohort-based course structured, for those of us who don't necessarily know even what that exactly looks like yet?
Cohort-based courses have a couple key components, and you can mix and match them in different ways, based on what's the best way for your target student to learn this topic, and based on your own preferences as a creator. I always like telling first-time course creators to start from those two places, because if you don't, there are so many variables, and it's very easy to get overwhelmed.
With DIY courses, for example, it's mainly pre-recorded videos; you have unlimited time to get it right. Then you hit publish, and then it's set it and forget it. Whereas with a cohort-based course, the live component and the more premium price point add additional variables. Mainly, it increases expectations on the student side. If students, let's say, pay $20 for a course, and it wasn't great, oh, well, not too big of a deal. But let's say they paid $1,000 or $1,500, or, $700 for a course, they automatically will have higher expectations for what does that experience, how much am I getting from that?
In terms of all the different questions that a creator has to answer, some of the common ones are, how much should I charge for my course? How long should my course be? How narrow versus broad should the scope of my topic be? How many students should I aim for? What should the course's weekly schedule look like? Those are a lot of questions that can be overwhelming.
The way that I usually recommend first-time course creators to start is one, to think about your student transformation. What does your target student want to learn that is juicy, that they're willing to pay for, that they're really eager to learn from you specifically? That's one. Second is, what are your own assets and constraints as a creator? Let's say you don't like messing with technology, you don't have a good design instinct, let's say, don't like messing with camera equipment, et cetera. Then, don't make production value a key selling point in your cohort-based course.
There are plenty of courses that have great production value, and plenty that have very poor production value and still are awesome and have a lot of students. If, on the other hand, you like tinkering with Photoshop, you like making slides, you nerd out about audio/visual equipment, then maybe production value is your selling point.
It really depends on your own areas of confidence, and your own assets and levers. There are some creators who start off who already have an audience; that's great, that's an audience that you can market to. You might set a higher student count, initially. Let's say I want to have 100 or 150 students, awesome. If you have an audience, then that's very doable. On the other hand, if you don't have much of an online presence yet, you're still building up your newsletter, you're still building up your online presence, then you might start with a slightly smaller student count. You might say, “Hey, I'm going to do 30 students for my first cohort, 20 or 30 students, see how it goes.”
Instead of trying to get all your students via Twitter and social media, you might say, “Who in my network do I know that I can cross promote with? Can I do webinars and fireside chats to interview certain people who have audience bases in groups that I'm trying to tap into?” and get your initial students that way. It really depends on what your initial assets are, and what your constraints are, and what your students are looking for from you.
From there, then you can say, “All right, based on what my students are looking for, based on my own schedule, my strengths, my weaknesses, I think my initial cohort should be a three-day course, because I want to get one cycle of course building under my belt. I'm going to start small with 20 to 30 students. I'm going to price it at something that I feel like will be really juicy for them, maybe $500 to $700, see how it goes.”
Then someone else might do that same exercise and say, “All right, I'm going to aim for 100 people in my initial cohort, I'm going to price it at $2,000. This course is going to be three or four weeks. It's going to be doable for working professionals. The hours are going to be set in a way that makes sense for my target students to be able to attend.”
It depends on your situation and your student situation. Then you use those as guardrails to decide the mechanics of price, length, intensity, how project driven it is, whether you want coaches or not. All of those are actually quite flexible, as long as you keep your end goal in mind, which is I need to offer something that feels very valuable for a target student who's about to pay me their hard-earned cash money to take my course.
I'm remembering some lessons specifically that you had given us where we were actually meant to move a couple of levers and scales up and down to determine what our perfect price point would be, the size of the cohort, all that kind of stuff. It's interesting, because those specific exercises where we had to actually, in real time, make decisions and also in real time, share those decisions and get real feedback, that's really what the power of the cohort-based model is, and I'm still sticking with that.
Even today, I've taken dozens of online courses and I wouldn't even begin to tell you certain components of those because I was just watching, moving on to the next lesson, here I am, actually doing the work, which is the real benefit here.
Let's go over what a typical week might look like for a person teaching a multi-week cohort-based course. You had done, when you were teaching us, and this is how we structured it as well, for our first group, which was, meeting twice a week, the first part of the week was going to be more lessons. But it wasn't just, watch a lecture. Let's go over that first component and that first part of the week where you are teaching something, but because it's cohort-based, can you go over how we can uniquely teach something and the breakouts and some of the other interactive components that we can include in the lessons?
I have a method of lecturing online that I call the “state change method.” If you think about Zoom calls that you're usually on, whether they're webinars or Zoom lectures, it's usually one person talking the entire time. It's really hard to sit still staring at your screen for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours; your mind just wanders.
The state change method was a reaction to that. With the state change method, if you imagine, let's say a line of lecturing, there's state changes that punctuate that line. There's never more than three to five minutes that go by of lecturing without some kind of state change. A state change is anything that interrupts that monologue. It could be, "Hey, everyone, here's the question, put your answer in the Zoom chat box." Or, "Unmute yourself and share your answer to something." Or it's switching speakers. Instead of just one speaker, it's having the moderator chime in. Or it's a breakout, where you put everyone into a room for five minutes to answer a question and then come back and share out. Or it's a guided exercise, where everyone stays in Zoom, gallery view, we all silently work together, and I'm timing, one minute to do this exercise, the minute is up. All right, next, we're going to do this thing, and we all silently work together.
Those are all examples of state changes that help to create a lively, fast-paced rhythm during a live workshop for a cohort-based course. That sense of rhythm is really important. It's pacing that helps your students feel like you're keeping them on their toes. This helps them stay mentally engaged, and it helps them stay present, and it really combats the lethargy that can sink in if you're just sitting at your computer, staring straight ahead at a screen.
Yeah, I mean, we implemented state changes every couple of minutes, if possible, within some of our lessons. The cool thing is, if you do this right, you hear from the students at the end, saying things like, "Oh, wow, are we already done? This went by so quickly." That's what you want to feel because then it doesn't ever feel like a bore or just a lecture at a university anymore. It's actually interactive.
You had mentioned breakout sessions, that we found to be very, very powerful. Can you talk a little bit more deeply about how breakout sessions are run and how to come back into the room together, and then continue on with your lessons from there?
Breakout sessions are a great way for students to practice the lesson that you just taught them. Let's say that you're teaching a course on sales and pitching, and you just went over doing a teardown of what a great pitch looks like, and some of the key elements. Instead of just moving on to the next thing, what you could do is do a breakout, where, for let's say, seven minutes, you put students into groups of three to five, and everyone works on sharing their pitch with each other, and giving each other feedback, pointing out, “Here's the parts that made my eyes light up. Here are the parts that were confusing or made my eyes glaze over.”
This idea of working and practicing and putting these lessons into practice is a really powerful way for students to apply those lessons to themselves and to their own situation, and therefore really internalize that material. Once the breakout is over, let's say the seven minutes have passed, everyone comes back into the main room, and that's another opportunity for really rich learnings. Because when you invite students to share out, "Hey, what did you talk about in your breakout? What were some key takeaways?" Or, "What was a great piece of feedback that someone gave you?" Or, "What was something that you changed your mind about?"
These are all chances for the broader group to hear from everyone else, to hear from all the other students and see how other students interpreted the prompt, see what other students thought of, that you might have never thought of.
I think that the shareouts after a breakout are some of the most interesting parts of running a course on the creator side. Because inevitably, your students think of things that you didn't even think of. I hear this from instructors all the time. Li Jin was saying the other day... Li is a venture capitalist, she used to be at Andreessen Horowitz, now she runs her own VC firm. She coined the term “passion economy,” and she has a course on the creator economy on Maven. She was saying that she learned more and just as much from her students as they did from her. Because all of her students thought of unique use cases for what she was talking about. They thought of edge cases, they thought of examples and industries that she didn't think of. She said it sparked so many ideas for her that she ended up writing other great essays because of what she was seeing from her own students.
If you can imagine the shareouts after breakout being that impactful for an instructor, it's incredible for a student, where usually if you're learning something by yourself, you're not seeing what other people are doing with that topic or that prompt or how they're thinking about things.
That's so true. Those were some of my most favorite parts from the last cohort that we ran was during the shareouts. In addition to the learnings that are happening from the team and from the other students with amongst each other, just the comments from people supporting those who are also in the course, the group support from each other, was very apparent during those shareouts. “Congratulations,” and “Wow, that's excellent.” Or even additional feedback coming from those who were sitting there and listening to those who are presenting.
So, so fun, and those breakouts were definitely key. I know it can feel a little weird, like forcing people to talk to each other. I think that was the thing that I had to get over, because being an introvert myself, I almost am definitely afraid of that. I remember sitting in class as a kid, never raising my hand because I didn't want to be put on the spot. But part of your role as the course creator is almost to put people on the spot, to force them in a safe space to be able to learn and present and learn from each other and connect.
Do you have any thoughts on that idea of the interactivity with those who may be a little bit scared to do so within a student base?
I love that you shared that you are an introvert and never raise your hand. I am also that person. Even now, I last summer took a cohort-based course from one my former clients, Suzy Batiz, who's the founder and CEO of Poo-Pourri. She has a course called Alive OS, eight weeks. I went into the course thinking, “I'm going to learn what I can, but I don't really want to participate.” I went in already hesitating on that front.
I remember the first group meeting that we had, I think it was eight or nine people in my pod, everyone else had shared. I think it was one hour, everyone else had shared. I thought I had gotten away with not having to share. Right at the end, I think there was three minutes left or something, the coach said, "Hey, Wes, you haven't shared yet. Would you like to share?" It was like this fork in the road where part of me was like, “No, I'm just going to not share,” and the other part of me was like, “Well, Wes, you're here to learn. Why don't you give it a try? Just share something and have the full course experience.”
I decided to share, and once I started sharing, it was like, everything just came pouring out. The group was so supportive, as I was talking, that it encouraged me to keep going and to share more and to dive deeper. I'm so glad that I shared in that first week, in that first group meeting, because for the rest of the seven weeks, the weekly group meeting was the highlight of those months, and the highlight of the course. There were actually times that I missed a lecture, me being a bad student and all. I actually missed some weeks of lecture, but I never missed the group meeting of the week, because it was so transformative for me and so special to have a space where I could talk openly with other people who are thinking about the same thing, learning about the same thing, that shared context.
We had a shared language from the course, that I moved stuff in my schedule. I scheduled around that group meeting to never miss it. I think that experience of going forward and leaning in as opposed to leaning back, when you have an opportunity to participate, that's really what you want to do as a student if you're in the cohort-based course. I think on the facilitator side, the creator side, the moderator side, our job as instructors is to create that space where your students do feel that excitement that I think came across my voice because I'm thinking about it now, and talk to my hands, can't see me because I'm audio, but pretty excited.
Our job as instructors is to create that environment where your students feel like they want to show up, they want to share, they want to open up and to gently encourage that. In different students, you might have to encourage it in different ways. But giving a gentle nudge, a gentle prodding is usually good for both the student and all the other students who are going to get to benefit from that student really leaning in and participating.
Thank you for sharing that. I experienced the same thing, and it's interesting because in a couple of our boot camps, when we were collecting feedback at the end, people had said exactly that. "I was reluctant, I didn't really want to share. I just wanted to coast and listen and watch everybody else." But then once they almost were put in a position to share out, they felt that it was just some of the best stuff. In fact, we got a lot of feedback that was like, “We want more interactive moments. We need more of it.” It's just so special when it happens.
Let's continue talking about, let's say first part of the week is lessons with a lot of these state changes and purposeful interruptions to get people to interact with each other and whatnot, to learn, to make progress.
Second part of the week, which was interesting, and we've also implemented was more of a coworking situation where people could come together and actually find the time to work. Then on top of that, the homework. The homework is another one of those words that can often scare some people. But it was absolutely valuable to have space to actually turn in, and also, I think the deadline was what, 3:30 PM on Sunday, every week with you guys.
We scrambled to get those things turned in. But it was so helpful. Can you talk more about the idea of having these other components to help students beyond just lessons and breakouts. But you have coworking; you have homework. How are they structured? How and why do they exist?
Having asynchronous work, whether it's readings that you're doing on your own, videos you're watching on your own, homework that you're doing on your own, those are all important ways for your student to percolate the material that you might have gone over in a live setting. There's a great stat somewhere about how people need to hear information a dozen or so times before they really internalize it. If your students are hearing something for the first time in a live workshop—let's say the workshop's an hour and a half—that's not enough time for them to experience true behavior change that is actually going to last. They need to percolate with that idea, they need to incorporate it into their lives, they need to think about it and really get used to that idea.
Homework, projects, having milestones and different deadlines that get students to do the work. The more the students think about a new idea, incorporate it into their lives, the more likely that they're going to remember it and be able to add it permanently to their toolbox.
The idea of deadlines and due dates within a course too, really help to spur this because we've all procrastinated to do something, until the last minute. With the cohort-based course and adult learning, continuing education in general, you can't really force people to do anything. You can say that this is the deadline, there's no punishment, per se. Whereas I think in K-12, higher education, it's much more stick driven, if we think about carrots versus sticks. It's much more stick driven because “If you don't do this thing, well, I'm going to fail you, or you're going to get a C, or”—“I” as in the professor—"or you're not going to be able to graduate on time.”
Those are all fear-driven motivators that are sticks. Whereas when your students are working professionals, who are doing your course basically for fun, for professional development, to improve themselves, they're here because they want to be here. You need to use carrots, not sticks to motivate them. Creating different media for your students to interact with the material, different ways to create a sense of urgency. Whether it's “Hey, we have live workshops. If you want to proceed live, you have to show up at this time, on this day.” Or, “Hey, your projects are due on this date. If you want feedback on your projects, be sure to submit by then.”
These are all more positive ways to motivate your students and to make sure that you're giving them a range of different media to learn from because not everyone learns best in live situations or when they're put on the spot or purely in group work, it's usually a combination of doing those things, the group work, the live pieces, et cetera, plus also reading on your own and thinking on your own and practicing on your own.
There are situations where you’re working on something uninterrupted for an hour or two by yourself. Let's say you're drafting an about page. That's one of David Perell in Write of Passage, one of his projects is to redo your own about page on your website. He talks about personal credibility, personal branding, and then students do this project.
You could say, "Hey, we're only going to do stuff live, and you have 10 minutes to redo your about page." But it's not really the best way for your students to learn this particular concept? Probably not. A student, giving them a chance to work on their own solo a couple hours to really dig into rewriting that copy, rethinking about their positioning, thinking about credibility signals, et cetera, and then turning that in, that's probably a better way to learn that topic. As a creator, you want to offer these different ways.
Super helpful, Wes. Thank you so much. There's obviously so much more we could cover. I do have one final thing I want to ask you. But before that, can you talk about Maven real quick? I want people to go to Maven.com to learn more. But what can they get when they go there? What should they look out for? How can they work with you?
Maven is a platform that makes it really easy for creators to build, launch, and host their cohort-based courses. We offer software and tooling that brings all the different complex pieces into one place, so it's really easy for you to manage. We will eventually be a marketplace that will help connect students with instructors. We also offer knowhow and content and resources on how to build a great cohort-based course.
The course that Pat and the SPI team participated in was part of a multi-week free course that we offer to creators who are interested in building a cohort-based course. If you're excited about that, you can check out our website, where we're accepting applications for our upcoming September cohort.
[Editor’s note: As of the time of this episode’s publication, the September cohort was closed for new applications. You can submit your email address to be notified of upcoming cohorts at Maven.com/maven/course-accelerator.]
Thank you, Wes. I appreciate that. The final question I want to ask you is with relation to how do you close the cohort-based course with your group of students? Because with the DIY, there's usually a final lesson, “Here are your next steps.” But I imagine that there's a lot more opportunity to do something even bigger, even more special for those who have just participated in a multi-day, multi-week situation with you. How do you and/or how do you celebrate that with your students?
For our own course, which is six weeks. In the future, we'll probably trim it to three weeks. Going back full circle to how the different mechanics are all flexible, as long as your end goal is kept in mind. We're changing the number of weeks here. But at the end of our course, we do a graduation. Our graduation is coming up in two weeks.
The graduation is a chance for all the students to come together and reflect on how far you've come in this course, and reflect on the key takeaways that you want to remind your future self. Future Wes, I want you to remember this, because this was a really important thing that I learned. It's a chance to celebrate that. For us, at least this is just the beginning. The students that were actually creators are going to go off and build amazing things.
For other instructors and creators, your own students, this is just one step in a much longer journey, maybe one course that they're taking from you that is in their journey. Then you might have other courses and other offerings to help serve them. We like celebrating at the end and ending on a high note. One of my philosophies is always end on a high note. Where you're throwing confetti in the air, and then you wrap up.
A lot of times, course creators want to continue the momentum. But if you don't have the right levers in place, with timing, everyone getting together, it can be a deflating balloon, where it's like, “Oh, well, let's just keep Slack open.” You keep it open, but it just slowly dies down or very quickly dies down rather, because there's nothing that's really bringing everyone back in the way that during the course, there were levers bringing people back.
In terms of how to end, one is end on a high note. Two is, if you do want to keep a community going, that's great. But you want to think about what is the right way to keep the community going, and how do you set expectations? With the altMBA, for example, always, on the last day of the course, we had so many students, i.e., recent alumni who just graduated, say, "Please can we continue this? Can we just leave everything open?" We found from running many, many sessions that once the course ends, students need something different. It's no longer that four weeks where they're committed to the course; it's now back to regular daily life where you have other responsibilities, other obligations, et cetera. So, we move students into an alumni community that has its own separate offering.
Instead of trying to continue the course and make it a bad version of that, we give them a new offering, which is entirely designed for alumni, with a different set of expectations and different ways to keep alumni engaged. We have an alumni newsletter, at least when I was there, that went out monthly. There's different alumni-only events, ways to meet people who've taken other courses within the Akimbo ecosystem besides altMBA. Offering something that is appropriately designed for your community is really good, because you want to create something that is actually sustainable for you. If you don't do that, you risk setting the wrong expectations and then feeling really obligated to continue entertaining your students in a way that isn't really sustainable.
Wes, this has been absolutely incredible. Thank you for helping us figure out how we might be able to wrap up our cohort-based course. As we wrap up this episode, I want to personally, again, thank you for the work that you've done, and the work that you're doing. You've helped me and the team at SPI create some really, really memorable lessons and experiences for people through our own cohort-based courses. We're going to continue to do them. It's just such a fun way to do it.
In fact, we had just run one about creating online courses called Heroic Online Courses. I was just planning on leading the charge on the first one, and then letting the team run with the next ones. But honestly, I've loved it so, so much that I'm going to continue to, at least for the foreseeable future, and still leave those lessons and be there, because it was so much fun. Thank you for all of it. I just appreciate it so much.
I love hearing that. That really, really makes my day.
Thank you, Wes. Maven.com, everybody, and we'll wrap up with the show as we normally do right now. Thanks, Wes.
All right. I hope you enjoyed that interview with Wes. Wes is just such an amazing wealth of knowledge, especially when it comes to learning online. It's no wonder why Seth and her have worked together to create altMBA, and now Maven.com, where you can go to learn and also create your cohort-based course and be an instructor.
Again, M-A-V-E-N.com. If you want to check out some of our own things going on where we can help you in this kind of style, I'd highly recommend you check out the courses and the learnings that are available over at SmartPassiveIncome.com. We'll have links on the show notes. Again, SmartPassiveIncome.com /session513. Again, SmartPassiveIncome.com /session513. We'll also make sure to include links to our programs and stuff in the show notes so you can click on them even right from your device. Thank you all for listening in. I appreciate you, and thank you again, Wes, for sharing some of your time with this because I know you're very busy helping new instructors get what they need to crush it with their cohort-based courses.
So take care, everybody. Thank you so much. I look forward to serving you this coming Friday in our Friday follow-up episode, as well as next week where we have another great interview, something that I actually haven't heard anybody talk about online, coming next week, and I hope you enjoy it. It's very, very important. Take care. Thanks so much, peace out, and as always, Team Flynn for the win.
Thanks for listening to the Smart Passive Income Podcast at SmartPassiveIncome.com. I'm your host, Pat Flynn. Our senior producer is Sara Jane Hess. Our series producer is David Grabowski, and our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. The Smart Passive Income Podcast is a production of SPI Media. We'll catch you in the next session.
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