Creating Cohorts in a Blended World

Michael Horn, author of The Rise of Blended Learning, and I hosted a webinar last week in which we featured AdvancePath, a dropout prevention network, and Carpe Diem, a blended college prep high school in Yuma.   (For more background, see a May 12 recap of my visit to Carpe Diem.  Here’s a Q&A with John Super, the president of AdvancePath)
As education shifts from print to digital and from age cohorts to individual students, it’s a good time to examine the value of a cohort.  Groups of kids with similar birthdays have been used as the basic building block of education for a century.  As we gain the ability to customize learning for every student is there any value in learning in a group?
The Carpe Diem model relies on a backbone of computer-based instruction but it is supplemented with daily workshops in each subject.  The computer-based instruction allows the student to vary pacing but workshops are generally cohorts of students moving at approximately the same pace.  Like other high performing schools, Carpe Diem utilizes cohorts for integration and application.  Workshops promote peer-to-peer learning and problem solving.  Students at Carpe Diem generally start and finish classes together.
AdvancePath also relies on a backbone of computer-based instruction but students start and finish classes on their own.  There is one-on-one help available on demand and some small group instruction.  With students coming and going, there is limited efforts to derive benefit from the cohort; AdvancePath has a fully individualized approach to learning.
Carpe Diem and AdvancePath academies have a very intentional culture that is supportive and productive.  Creating a graduation focused culture is important but it doesn’t dictate a cohort approach (i.e., an individualized approach like AdvancePath has a learning environment with clear norms).
As schools incorporate online learning and competency-based practices, we will see more innovative strategies for combining the benefits of customized learning and peer cohorts.  Here’s five strategies to promote learning together:
1. Dynamic cohort: School of One is a customized math program in three NYC middle schools.  Every student receives daily lessons at the right level and in the best learning modality.  It often includes dynamically scheduled small group instruction.
2. Virtual cohort: Florida Virtual offers rolling course enrollment and creates virtual cohorts of students taking the same course at the same time.
3. Social groups: Edmodo is the largest social learning platform.  Teachers use it to make and manage assignments.  Edmodo makes it easy for teachers to create temporary groups.
4. Project team: New Tech Network is a national network of project-based STEM schools.  The Echo platform makes it easy for teachers to create project teams.
5. Temporary cohort: test prep sites like Grockit create temporary cohorts that leverage interaction.  An increasing number of learning applications utilize game mechanics including multi-player environments, team quests, collaborative problem solving, and competition.
The School of One example of an individual progress model with a customized sequence of learning experiences including dynamically scheduled group interactions will become a dominant model as learning platforms become more sophisticated.
In the mean time, pick a strand to run a blended learning pilot—math or upper division STEM are good candidates—pick a core curriculum, identify engaging supplemental material, and complement the individualized approach with some of the cohort strategies discussed above.

  • · How to blend math, 10 steps to develop a competency-based math pilot
  • · Cohort v Competency, a discussion of the role of cohorts in new higher education degree programs.
  • · Clearing the Path: Creating Innovation Space for Serving Over-Age, Under-Credited Students in Competency-Based Pathways

[disclosure: AdvancePath and Edmodo are Learn Capital portfolio companies]

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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