Pandemic changed everything about everything. One of the biggest impacts was on education. Many pre-existing players (like Udemy, Coursera, brick-and-mortar institutions) lost relevance and many new institutions rose to prominence.
What caused this to happen?
With the pandemic, all education moved online - there was no other choice.
It was a whole new battlefield for traditional players, who didn’t know how to curate a learning experience online. They took whatever was available and whatever everyone else was doing - hence, Zoom classes became the norm.
For those established on Udemy and Coursera-like platforms, completion rates were always a problem. It manifested itself as a bigger problem because of screen fatigue. People from all walks of life were glued to screen and video calls all day - it was tiring. Pulling off extra hours to focus on pre-recorded lectures became an overkill.
Content creators. A tribe of people who post content on social platforms and garner the trust of big audiences. These folks know how humans behave online. Online is their home ground.
While everyone else flopped, creators found a way to monetise their audience by selling online courses. In order to make the experience more conducive for their audiences, they experimented with a bunch of formats.
And, eureka! There emerged a format, that of live courses + communities now popularly known as “cohort based courses”.. Course creators saw unprecedented completion rates there.
How does a “cohort-based course” work?
A CBC runs in batches, opposed to a self-paced course, where you can sell as many course units as you want, because the viewer has to consume the content at their own pace.
In CBCs, there’s a cap on the intake of students you can take per batch - for the same reason your classroom would cap at 60-100 students.
Cohorts replicate the classroom vibe, but online. Students have each other for accountability and competition. They feel like a part of their identity belongs to the batch that they have enrolled for.
The classes are held live - with real-time interaction amongst students & instructors. There is a possibility of organizing students into teams.
When we ran cohorts, we also enabled real time-audio for students. And every now and then, because of which as an instructor, I saw teams sitting together on voice chat trying to crack their assignments together. It literally felt like college.
Cohorts facilitate cross border learning and are slowly becoming a major highlight of many students’ lives. They typically have up to 500% higher completion rates than self-paced courses - and because of this outcome, creators are able to charge anywhere from $300-$5000 per student per cohort (averaging 8-12 weeks).
Having run a cohort myself and personally mentoring over 500 students with a >65% completion rate (avg cohort length ~16 weeks), I would love to help you run one yourself. The biggest hurdle is in choosing the right tools. Since the trend is new, there are a bunch of unpolished and incomplete tools available out there. Picking the right platform to run your cohort is make or break for student experience (as well as your earning potential).
We’ll compare the following platforms:
3. Kajabi, Thinkific and Teachable (all of which belong to the self-paced learning era)
1.1 About Maven
Maven was one of the first movers in the space. They launched with a star-studded line up of creators like Sam Parr, Nir Eyal, Li Jin, etc. who have a big social following.
However, they’re a marketplace - which means, you won’t have full access to your data, your brand won’t show, you’d compete against plenty others, and you’d be one of the many options available on the platform. This hurts because you’re at Maven’s mercy - it’s good for a start, but very dicey to sustain as a long-term business.
1.2 Pros of Maven
- Marketing: They ensure traffic (and first few applicants) to your program. They feature you on their website, promote your course on other platforms and announce in their newsletter. All of these activities are something marketplace companies do initially, but at scale, it becomes hard to sustain.
- Features of a Learning Management Software (LMS): Something that Maven focused on right from the start, is the class scheduling (aka timetable) and assignment features.
- Student Hub (Community): A text-based forum where students can discuss doubts & trivia amongst themselves. This was made in a bid to give classroom feels to the students.
1.3 Cons of Maven
- Community (in beta): Most of the community features of Maven are in beta. It’s hard to get social interactions right and that’s showing - since the platform has been building for the last ~18 months. This hurts your idea of running a “real” cohort-based course - because community interactions are everything.
- Not everyone gets in: Maven (since they are in the early stage of their business model) is waitlisting new instructors. They’re very picky about who they let onto the platform as an instructor. You’re up for a long wait-time with no guarantee of making it.
- Not white-labeled: Maven’s platform is not white-labeled which means that you can’t customize the platform according to your own branding. In spite of the members and learners belonging to you, the brand reputation will go to Maven. Very non-ideal for a long-term business.
- Not on mobile: While students consume the live classes on desktop or laptop, the community engagement happens on mobile. Push notifications are what bring them back to a hot conversation happening on the platform OR serve as a reminder for the next upcoming lecture. WhatsApp/iMessage has shaped our behavior in a certain way and it’s impossible to go back. Maven misses the mark here.
1.4 Who is Maven for?
Maven is best suited for very popular creators who want to experiment with course creation. These creators are not looking to build an academy business out of their course since they’re mere instructors on the platform.
2.1 About TryVirtually
TryVirtually positions itself as a student relationship manager software that’s aimed at reducing drop offs. There is no mention of cohorts or community upfront - but that’s what I’ve seen a few creators use it for. TryVirtually reminds me of a run-of-the-mill LMS, but with a few integrations with Google Calendar, Zoom, etc.
2.2 Pros of TryVirtually
- Features of an LMS: It helps you schedule sessions on timetable, can block your calendar (once the integration is set). However, it lacks support for tracking viewer stats for any pre-recorded content.
- Assignment & attendance tracking: These indicators help an instructor track the overall engagement of a student. Those defaulting can be identified quickly.
2.3 Cons of TryVirtually
- No mention of community: While TryVirtually solves for live-learning and student tracking. It misses big time on solving for the intrinsic motivation - students come back for each other. You can chase and track them as much as you want, it doesn’t help.
- Incomplete platform: In essence, all that TryVirtually has to offer is a student tracker. It needs integrations for everything else. It helps to think of it as a no-code dashboard, instead of a software solution.
- Not on mobile: There’s no mobile app. Also, since the setup becomes clunky due to several integrations, it’s impossible to operate on mobile.
2.4 Who is TryVirtually for?
If you are planning to host events or one-off workshops, then Try Virtually should be your pick. It is best suited for one-way interaction events like conferences, lectures etc. You can’t sustain a cohort that spans across multiple weeks and months on it.
#3 Kajabi, Thinkific and Teachable
3.1 About Kajabi, Thinkific & Teachable
Kajabi, Teachable & Thinkific are platforms where course creators of the pre-pandemic era hosted their courses. These platforms are not marketplaces (unlike Udemy). They’re whitelabeled and allow your business to wear its own unique look and feel. While experimental instructors went to marketplaces like Udemy, those running a serious coaching business would come onto these platforms.
They were the heroes back then - let’s discover how they’re keeping up when it comes to live-learning & cohort-based courses.
3.2 Pros of Kajabi, Teachable & Thinkific
- LMS features: These players have been around in the course creation market for long. Their LMS features are tried and tested.
- Zoom integration: Back in the day - webinars had a primary use case of high-ticket selling. These platforms modeled themselves to integrate Zoom and allow webinars on their web pages. You can still use this setup to enable live-learning (although that’s not their primary use case).
- White-labeled : These platforms are white-labeled and allow you to paint your store in your colors.
3.3 Cons of Kajabi, Teachable & Thinkific
- Not built for cohorts: Although you can hack your way into live-learning by using their webinar module to do live classes. The truth is they’re not built for the promise of social & live-learning.
- No community focus: Although these platforms throw around the word “community” every now and then in their messaging - the truth is they’re only talking about discussion boards. They lack what a successful community takes to run - incentives for students, leaderboard, team functionality, chatrooms, audio-video rooms, etc.
- Limited / No mobile app: Thinkific has no mobile app. Kajabi & Teachable have mobile apps but they’re like a membership directory of your students in your pocket (limited features, can’t replace the need for web). Lastly, these mobile apps make you lose your brand feels - because you’re having your students download a Kajabi / Teachable app, and not yours.
3.4 Who are Kajabi, Teachable & Thinkific for?
These platforms are suited for someone who wants to make $50 - $150 per student by selling pre-recorded courses. These courses sell because they’re priced low - and hence chances of repeat purchases & referrals are also low - because student outcomes are pretty low.
It’s like selling a book - your job is over once it’s sold, very few buyers will ever read the whole thing. Whereas when you’re running a cohort, you’re actually running an academy (and hence earning more).
4.1 About Scenes
Scenes was built ground up for learning communities. Despite an abundance of tools to run cohorts, the creators with serious intentions to run a cohort found themselves flocking back to Discord. Why was this happening?
This was because the user experience of actually using the other platforms is bad. They’ve not nailed student-to-student (or member-to-member) interactions because it’s hard.
Before building Scenes, we too ran our cohorts on Discord. While it was the best that was on the market, we still had our gripes with it.
Here are some of the issues we faced:
1) Our audience was being shared with everyone else (because while they’re on discord app - they can be a part of n other groups),
2) It was not white-labeled
3) We had no notification control (discord decides who to show your notifications to)
4) We had no data ownership (you don’t know who your members are - all you’ll ever see is numbers & charts on analytics).
These 4 aspects are essential for any business.
Without them it’s risky to house your members anywhere, because your community is everything for your business. Which is why we decided to build Scenes for cohort-based & live-learning.
4.2 Problems Scenes Solves
- Fully whitelabeled on web & mobile - hosted on your own website domain / playstore / appstore.
- Mobile first - it’s 2023 and ~65% of internet users use the internet primarily on their phone. Keeping this in mind, we built Scenes mobile-first and built out the web version later.
- Has 8 different types of channels like forums, stage (voice and video), chat, resources, shop, calendar, voice bubbles and more. Different channel types solve different needs.
- Notifications are optimized for stage (voice and video) activity. You’ll know when friends or community leaders are speaking on stage. Less noise that way.
- You can create formal events on the calendar channel and people can set reminders for them - which syncs with their Google calendar.
- We made the UX as simple as possible, swapping out Discord’s gamer theme for simple white. We stripped out anything that has a possibility of causing confusion.
- We made roles and permissions that are brain dead and easy to use. Just select a role (say student, teacher or admin) and choose from a list what permission that role has in a channel.
- We added a coin system for every community for incentivization and rewards.
At Scenes, we were the first movers in the space of “cohort based courses” / “community-led learning”, and we built the platform to solve that void, from day one.
It’s by far the most complete tool to run your online academy, the way it’s supposed to run in 2023. We’ve been there, done that.