Keeping Students Engaged: The Live Events Menu for Cohort-based Courses

July 29, 2021

As an online educator, each day is a battle to keep your members engaged.

Cohort-based courses switch the learning experience from passive to active. Instead of the student taking the course alone, they do it with a group of people. There is a set start date and end date to the course, just like a college course.

This has a number of benefits to you, the online educator. For one, it creates a more compelling product. Your course becomes more exciting. It has more interaction.

Flipping the switch from passive to active makes it easier to sell, as well. We’re seeing more and more people signing up for cohort-based courses because of this new, live experience piece.

It also allows you to get better results for your students. The addition of live, virtual events, means you can provide a better student experience. A better student experience leads to rave reviews of your course. Word will spread, new people will take notice, and even more students will flock to you.

This much is clear: Bolting live events onto an otherwise passive student experience has skyrocketed the success of the online courses who take this path.

If you’ve previously only delivered passive online courses experiences, or have never delivered an online course at all, you may be wondering:

“Okay Ish, I believe in the power of adding live events to an online course experience, but what do I DO in these live sessions?”

You may think the live sessions are only for teaching. And while a live lecture is certainly a great use of a group Zoom session, it’s far from the only one.

Here at Virtually, one of the benefits of us working behind-the-scenes as partners with online education companies is we’ve seen many creative uses for live sessions. And how dramatically they can improve the student experience.

Since cohort-based courses are such a new product, and there’s not much training on them publicly available, we thought we’d share what we’ve learned. That way, other online educators can get new ideas on how to make their courses as good as possible.

In this post, we'll share nine different types of live events you can add to your cohort-based course.

Think of these as a menu you can choose from. You don’t need to use all of them. Simply choose the ones that jump out. Then, on your next cohort, maybe you experiment with a new menu item, and see how it tastes.

Here we go...

Here’s our 8-Piece Live Event Menu for Cohort-Based Courses

The Live Lecture

This is perhaps the most common type of live event hosted within a CBC. For a good reason too. 

If the goal of your program is to deliver curriculum to your students, a live lecture is perhaps the easiest way to do this. 

Contrary to self-paced courses, CBCs provide a space for students to engage with the curriculum. Ask questions, discuss, etc. Live lectures create a space for this type of learning. 

The Q&A

If you're someone who has an arsenal of async video curriculum, then a Q&A session might more apt for your learners. 

As the name implies, Q&A's allow for students to dive deep into a particular topic. 

Usually, you can host these sessions after assigning async reading or video lectures. 

The idea with these sessions is to have students explore the topic themselves and then use the Q&A as a supplementary session to go deeper. 

The Office Hours

Office hours are an excellent opportunity to spark serendipitous encounters between students. 

You can host office hours in a 1-on-1 or a group setting. 

Usually, office hours do not have an agenda. They are simply a block of time where any learner who needs additional support can drop by and get personalized support from an instructor.

Any live learning program should host at least one hour of office hours each week. 

The Fireside Chat

Another to boost attendance after the "dip" is to bring in guest speakers. These speakers are often renowned industry experts who can provide additional guidance for students. 

Sometimes, these conversations will be similar to live lectures. Other times, they take the form of Fireside chats. 

These are informal conversations in which one of the instructors will moderate a discussion and extract essential insights out for the audience. 

Two programs that do this exceptionally well are On Deck and Ali Abdaal's Part-time YouTuber Academy. 

The Mastermind

A mastermind group is a collection of like-minded individuals who work together to resolve each other's obstacles. 

A standard format of the mastermind group is the "hot seat," in which an individual will spend anywhere from 5-10 minutes explaining their dilemma. The group will then collectively help brainstorm solutions for the next 20 minutes. 

Mastermind groups can either be facilitated by instructor or peer-led. 

The Working Group

A great way to foster genuine connections between your larger cohort is to break it into small groups of 4-8 individuals. 

You can then have this group regularly meet and work on projects together. 

You get two benefits from this approach: 

1. Students get to build deep relationships with a smaller subset of the larger cohort 

2. Students learn the curriculum faster by mentoring each other rather than relying on instructors

The Icebreaker Session

When your program begins, interactions between members might feel stiff. It's your job as the instructor to help members feel comfortable with one another. 

In addition, to live sessions centered around learning, we recommend hosting a series of social events to bring the group closer together. 

These can be both 1-on-1 or done in a group setting. If you're using Slack as your community platform, you can use a tool like Donut

For group events, a tool like Gather Around is incredible. 

The Mentor Session

The last type of live event you can use to keep students engaged is a mentor session. 

These sessions aren't too dissimilar from live lectures except that they're usually led by a teaching assistant and are focused on applying the knowledge rather than learning new material. 

These are smaller, tight-knit groups of less than 20 students which often results in more discussion. 

Mentors can be anyone familiar with the curriculum but are often alumni of the program. 

An Example Live Event Schedule

Now that you've learned about the various types of live events, we thought it may help to show you what a full live event schedule may look like for a cohort-based course.

Example Week for a Typical 8-week Cohort-Based Course

Occasional Events

  • Icebreaker (one at the start of the program)
  • Fireside chat (one at the start and one at the end)

A Regular Week, Instructor Led Sessions

  • Monday - Live Lecture (1.5 - 3 hours)
  • Wednesday- Q&A (60 minutes)
  • Friday - Office Hours (60 minutes)

A Regular Week, Group Led Sessions

  • Tuesday - Working Group (1 hour)
  • Thursday - Mentor Session  (1 hour)

“But how the heck do I manage all these events?!” 

At this point, you’re probably thinking two things…

  1. “Wow, these events could really take my program to the next level. I’m excited to run with them.”
  2. “This A TON of moving pieces! How the heck do I manage all this!”

It’s true, adding these live events can really take an online course experience to the next level. But it also creates a logistical nightmare.

Especially when you consider all the moving pieces for a single live event. Let’s take a look.

For one live event, let’s say a live lecture, you have the following actions to take:

  • Place the live event on the calendar
  • Send a notification that the live event has been created
  • Send an email notification one day before
  • Send an email notification one hour before
  • Send an email notification when the live event is starting
  • Send a wrap-up email with a link to the recording

Not to mention all the “meta-data” that goes along with each session:

  • Setting the date & time
  • Tagging the event type
  • Assigning the instructor/facilitator(s)
  • Setting the session length
  • Organizing students into groups (if necessary)

It’s a lot of moving pieces, isn’t it? 

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do live sessions. Live sessions are the future of online education, after all. They aren’t going anywhere.

The key is to make sure you’re prepared. You want everything to run smoothly and seamlessly, so you’re not overwhelmed when your next cohort rolls around. You don’t want to be up at 2am setting up Zoom links and notification emails.

A simple solution is a spreadsheets + Google Calendar. With this approach, you can store all the different event types, facilitators, sessions length, groups, dates/times, etc.

You can then use Google calendar to send out invites for each event. This approach may require you to copy and paste emails into Google calendar for each different segment of your group. 

It also leaves you having to handle notifications (like reminder emails) and tracking student engagement (how many students didn’t show up?) separately.

This is Why We Built Virtually

While spreadsheets can be manageable for programs just getting started, you may want to leverage a tool like Virtually as you begin to scale. 

Virtually allows you to manage all your events, reminders, and student engagement data from one place. 

That sample program schedule we outlined above? With Virtually, you can easily plug it in, configure a few options, and hit “Go.” Virtually handles the rest.

It integrates with Google Calendar, Zoom, Slack, and email to put event management on auto-pilot. Easily create one-off or recurring meetings and Virtually will send calendar invites, remind members when a session is about to start, and track attendance. 

You can then view all your event and engagement data in one easy-to-access location. 

If you’re interested in using Virtually for handling your course’s live events, click here to set up a free consultation. We’ll ask you a few questions and see if Virtually can help.

Stay tuned

To get other helpful tips about running your cohort-based course and managing live events, subscribe to our weekly newsletter below. 

Ish Baid

Ish is the Founder & CEO of Virtually (YC S20).