Breaking down the evolution of Cohort Based Courses

By Chez Spigelman & Viktor Vecsei


The Founders of NextCohort met through OnDeck, a platform that offers various cohort bases courses. Inspired by that experience, we have been researching and exploring this space, aggregating our knowledge in a course directory and through reviews. One of the key questions we discussed when building NextCohort was a foundational one: what exactly is a cohort based course, and how does it differ from any other type of online course?

In this post we attempt to clarify the key characteristics of CBC's and pinpoint what makes them unique and better than existing community based education programmes and tools. 

What is a Cohort Based Course?

In this detailed essay on the topic, Tiago Forte breaks down the evolution of online learning and what a CBC is and what it isn’t. In a nutshell, he defines a CBC as having the following four elements:


  • Community - a dedicated cohort built around the core curriculum
  • Accountability - a consequence of having a cohort, as opposed to self paced online learning
  • Interaction - the increased efficacy and humanity of learning in conjunction with others
  • Impact - the transformational nature of being a part of something greater than yourself


One important feature of a CBC that we would add to this list is being Time-bound, with a specific start and end date. An open ended course with purely on demand learning - even if it has time specific open hours directly with the instructor - would better be described as a community with learning resources.

Different needs, different cohorts

Forte’s description takes account of the unique characteristics of CBC’s in general. At a more granular level, at NextCohort we’ve found they can be sorted into three types:

  1. Courses that widely explore a specific Topic 
  2. Courses that teach a specific Skill 
  3. Courses that prepare you for a specific Job 

Topical CBC’s, such as OnDeck Founders tend towards less structure, and focus on grouping together like minded people aligned around a specific topic, goal or niche. They are often described as Fellowships and share the following characteristics:

  • Bottom up. Learning material is loosely defined by the instructor or program director. The student body as a whole decides on what to focus on and participants contribute with problems, solutions and insights. Instructors help facilitate events and growing together .
  • Community focused. As a consequence of the bottom up approach, topical CBC’s require highly curated, carefully selected participants. Community is the driving force of the learning, and members have to be able to gel naturally. Much of the value of the topical CBC comes from networking and peer based learning.
  • Loosely defined outcome. Topical CBC’s have no specific end goal – every attendee has their own goals and understanding of what they want to achieve. There are no required tasks, no tests, and no consequences.

Skill based CBC’s are structured with a specific goal in mind. They are based on a skill or project, such as starting a podcast or becoming a better Youtuber. Skill based CBC’s, such as Product Management Fundamentals by Lenny Rachitsky, are:

  • Top down. The learning material is specific, quantifiable and actionable. Participants focus on the material delivered by an instructor, often an influential figure in their niche.
  • Flexible cohort size. The specific makeup of the cohort is not an important factor for students, as most value comes from knowledge imparted by the instructor. The value of the larger cohort is due to the added learning that comes from diverse voices and increased accountability.
  • Curriculum focused. Skill CBC’s can have a specific curriculum, complete with assignments, tasks and projects to be completed.

Job focused CBC's** are essentially bootcamps geared towards teaching a specific skill set to prepare a candidate for a specific job. Coding bootcamps, like Lambda School are a typical example. One unique aspect of these courses is they often offer an ISA. They tend to be longer (3 months plus) and carry a more intense workload than topical and skill focused CBC’s. Their shared characteristics are:

  • Flat structure. Like skill based CBC’s, the learning material is specific, quantifiable and actionable, but here the specific instructor is not important – the curriculum is the key.
  • Individual goals. The aim is to turn the student into a candidate – hence the wider cohort is useful only towards that goal (sharing tips, ideas and emotional support etc). There is little cross pollination of ideas among the cohort.

Cohort based courses are an evolving trend. At NextCohort, we believe they are the future of online education, and have made it our mission to track, collect and spread information about this segment.

Our comprehensive Directory catalogues CBC's from a diverse range of talented creators, and our detailed Reviews open up the inner workings of some of the most popular courses out there.

Stay in touch with us to get informed about all all things CBC, including analysis, blog posts and new course additions.

** At NextCohort, we don't focus on job based CBC's - we list only those that are topical and skill based. We believe there are plenty of resources online that cover bootcamps and skill improvement programs.