Relationships Matter: Online Learning & Virtual Cohorts

Bill Gates used to take a box of books to the family cabin for “Think Week” and return an expert on a new subject. These days, Think Week is paperless, but it’s still a remarkable commitment to self-directed learning.

There are a few autodidacts like Gates who have the insight and drive to power their own personal learning plans. For most of us, learning is relational — it’s motivated and supported by relationships. It helps to have the framework of a degree, knowledgeable instructors, and a diverse cohort with similar goals.

For nontraditional and online learners, those relationships may look different but they are as important as ever. Four important relationships include an advisor, mentors, a learning cohort, and project teams.

  • Advisor. Most college students go it alone, but a sustained relationship with an advisor can be the most important learning relationship — particularly for students mixing and matching on-site and online credits. Advisors monitor academic progress, provide counsel on course selections, assist with internships, and provide a link to services.

    Every student should have an advocate – one person who shares responsibility with that student for navigating school and who knows the student’s goals and aspirations.

    Every student should get the time and attention they need to succeed – in any subject, at any time.

  • Mentors. Learners benefit from mentors, particularly those active in their target profession. Students, “need to witness the exercise of judgment, the weighing of means and ends by people they can imagine becoming,” said reformer Deborah Meier. Virtual mentoring is just getting started, but it will soon be part of most secondary and postsecondary learner experiences.
  • Cohort. With self-directed, personalized and online learning, it is not necessary to learn with a cohort. But in many cases, a diverse and experienced cohort can add a tremendous amount to the learning experience. A valuable cohort experience can be created by an instructor that draws participants into the learning experience. Students can create a study group. Social learning apps create a virtual cohort.
  • Project teams. A specific short-term and often valuable cohort experience is the project team. Students learn to work with diverse team members, they learn to budget time and resources, and they take on specific roles and share responsibility for deliverables.

Another valuable learner relationship is a supportive boss — one who shares an interest in the outcomes, looks for related on-the-job learning experiences, and maybe even shares the bill.

For a K-12 perspective, see Core & More: Guiding and Personalizing College & Career Readiness.

This post was written as part of the University Of Phoenix Versus Program. I’m a compensated contributor, but the thoughts and ideas are my own.

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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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