Wes Kao is the co-founder of Maven. Prior to starting Maven, she was the co-founder of Altmba and helped with cohort-based courses for Outlier.org, David Perell’s Write of Passage, Tiago Forte’s Build a Second Brain, and Morning Brew. In this exclusive interview, she explains what it takes to design transformational online learning experiences.
How often have you signed up for an online course that you never started or finished? For most people who enroll in an online course, this is a common experience.
"The passive versus active piece key difference between MOOCs and Cohort-based courses. It's one of the main reasons corporate courses are growing in popularity. People tried MOOCs, and the completion rates are super low, anywhere between seven to 10%. And a recent MIT study said even lower at three to 6%." said Wes Kao in our interview on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast.
Unlike self-paced courses, cohort-based courses
- Encourage active participation,
- Have built-in accountability for students
- Lead significantly higher completion rates.
- Produce tangible transformations
For a transformational online learning experiences, both instructors and students must do their part.
1. Focus on Transformation, Not Information
The purpose of education is to create a transformation and take students on a journey that bridges the gap between who they are and who they want to become, what they're capable of doing and what they're not capable of doing.
Whether you are creating an online course, developing a training program for employees, or teaching at a university, there's one question you should ask yourself. Who do I want my students to become after they take my course?
2. Avoid the Curse of Knowledge
The curse of knowledge causes experts to underestimate how easy it will be to teach a novice what they know. This is why it's essential that instructors strip an idea down to its essence, use analogies and metaphors to communicate ideas clearly and make the abstract concrete.
3. Stop Blaming the Student
Throughout history, if a student doesn't learn something, we blame the student. We say you weren't paying attention. You weren't focused. You are slower than everyone else. You need to try harder. So it's the onus is on the student to understand," says Wes Kao
In the movie Accepted, Justin Long gets rejected by every college. Out of desperation, he has a friend build a fake website and print an acceptance letter for a fictitious college he shares with his parents.
His friend accidentally makes the website functional. A few weeks later, hundreds of people who've paid tuition show up at The South Harmon Institute of Technology.
Rather than force students to take classes from a course catalog, he asks them what they want to learn about and appropriates the bulk of their tuition to whatever they want to learn.
Even though the resulting curriculum isn't exactly practical, this movie exemplifies what a transformational online learning experiences could be.
Rather than force-feeding students' information, teachers need to Adapt and Learn . They should update curriculums in real time based on their students' needs and interests.
4. Make the Course 75% Interactive.
When you have live experiences, you want to spend it doing stuff that you can only do live. With first-time course creators, I always recommend that they aim for having 75% of their workshop be interactive: discussions, debates, critique, each other's work, giving each other feedback, doing demo days, pitching something. – Wes Kao
Years ago, I attended a company offsite in Cancun where everyone was forced to sit in a hotel ballroom from morning till evening and listen to mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. Anyone who appeared engaged was doing a really good job faking it. Death by Powerpoint is Not Professional Development or education.
Forcing students to sit in a physical or virtual classroom and listen to PowerPoint presentations defeats the purpose of a cohort-based course.
When students watch lectures on their own and attend live classes to discuss what they've learned, they can discuss critical concepts with other students in the course, ask questions that encourage elaboration. They stop being passive consumers and become active participants in the learning process.
1. Do the Damn Work
If you sign up for a self-based or cohort-based course, but never watch the modules, attend the sessions, or do the assignment, you can't blame the instructor for your results.
People who get results show up, have a bias towards action and take responsibility for their outcomes. Online courses are not magic pills. The greatest coach or teacher in the world won't make a damn bit of difference if you're unwilling to do the work.
2. Pick Battles You Can Win
Whether teaching something or learning something, all of us have real limitations and strengths.
I think one of my greatest strengths is picking battles that I can win and picking games that I feel like I have a shot at and would like playing and not necessarily just persisting through something just because it feels like I should. – Wes Kao
If you're unwilling to acknowledge your limitations, you end up fighting battles that you'll lose. When you start with your natural strengths , you're much more likely to have a transformational online learning experience.
Avoid Mimicking Tactics
When people mimic and replicate surface-level tactics without understanding the underlying constraints and assets that the original person is working with, then you, that, that's where you get in trouble.
Too often, when people take online courses, they overlook the blatantly obvious variable that makes it impossible to replicate someone else's results: themself.
"What you need to do is assess your assets and constraints. What do you bring to the table? What are you good at? How do you think, see things differently? What are the things that that are constraints that you want to work around?" says Wes Kao
If you take a podcasting course from someone who hosts an interview-based podcast, apply what you learn and create a podcast that's' not interview-based. Or experiment with doing the opposite of everything they suggest.
As author Ozan Varol says in his book, How to Think like a Rocket Scientist, "you can't copy and paste someone else's path to success."
Apply Proven Principles in an Original Context
If you want to maximize the value you get from an online course, it's vital to understand that context alters and determines outcomes in every area of life. You have to consider prescriptive advice in the context of your life and your projects.
Never follow anyone's advice to the letter. If you follow anybody's advice to the letter, at best, you'll become a pale of imitation of your predecessors.
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