Cohort v Competency

Yesterday I wrote about the potential for a new degree program on ‘learning together online.’  During a discussion about program design, a good question was raise, “How important is the cohort?”
The quick and traditional answer is, “very important.” But what about virtual and blended degree programs?   The answer is still likely to be, “cohorts are and important part of the learning experience it’s just that much of the interaction will be online.”
What about competency-based programs like WGU where students gain credit for experience by testing out of courses?  Add the convenience of rolling enrollment and it becomes quite difficult to benefit from learner cohorts.
This morning I received a related reader question:

“In my executive development class, we discussed a case study of the Gore leadership model (here’s Gary Hamel’s blog on lessons from W.L. Gore).  I thought it was powerful model based in the lattice to create mutual accountability and leadership without any hierarchy. They found that it caps at 150 and doesn’t work for groups too large. Have you heard about the Gore model? I wondered if it could apply to the organization of education staff and how it might change the way that professors administer and minister to students.”

While sympathetic to Gore’s organizational development strategy, it is a stretch to apply it to the organization of traditional higher education where diverse missions rule.  It would be more relevant to a new degree program focused on a specific set of learning outcomes (i.e., shared mission/vision).
For generations, quality high school developers have used a 100-student-per-grade rule of thumb.  Very much like Gore, a school of 400 or 500 is the upper bound where all the adults could at least recognize all the kids and where nested structures (advisory, grade, house) reduce anonymity, and where relational accountability can be exercised.  Small schools give adults a chance to set the culture.  Student cultures dominate big schools.
However, this rule of thumb reflects our crude no-tech past.  The introduction of personalizing technologies will allow us to reshape this rule of thumb.  If playlists customize learning and social learning groups replace classrooms as the dominate learning building block, it will become quite possible to operate large blended schools that meet the individual needs of students and have a very strong academic culture.
It is safe to say that a growing number of competency-based K-12 schools will not rely on age cohorts—in fact they will try to avoid the gravity of grade levels.  Like Success for All has been doing for more than 20 years, students will be grouped by learning levels not birthdays (see Kunskapsskolan, AdvancePath*).  There will be temporary groups, learning teams, and social groups, but not cohorts in the traditional sense.
Relationships matter at work and at school—that won’t change—but how they are formed and nurtured will be reshaped as the core architecture shifts from hallways of classrooms to social groups on digital learning platform.
See a couple great related reports released this week: SIIA on personalized learning and iNACOL on competency-based pathways
(*disclosure: I’m a director)

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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