Rise of the Cohort, Educational and Otherwise

“Cohort” is a term used in sociology and education that refers to a group of people that experience a certain set of events simultaneously as they move through time.  Cohort isn’t a perfect term, but I wonder if we are coming to a point where we need a term that gets rid of the meddlesome baggage associated with a class, but preserves the idea that there’s a particular type of peer instruction that benefits from everybody being on the same lesson at the same time.

Or failing a consensus on that point — at least a term that allows us to discuss the issue, which lately I see popping up all over the place, from Philipp’s quoting John Seely Brown to talk about founding principles for P2PU type efforts:

Together, members construct and negotiate a shared meaning, bringing the group along collectively rather than individually. In the process, they became what the literary critic Stanley Fish calls a “community of interpretation” working toward a shared understanding of the matter under discussion.

To Tony Hirst looking for ways to get OCW content delivered serially:

In contrast to syndication feeds from continually or regularly updated sources, a serialised feed is an RSS feed derived from an unchanging (or “static”) body of content, such as a book, or OpenLearn course unit, for example.

The original work is partitioned (serialised) into a set of separate component parts or chunks – in the case of a book, this might correspond to separate chapters, for example. Each chunk is then published as a separate RSS item. By scheduling the release of each feed item, a book or course can be released as a part-work over a period of time, with each part delivered as a separate feed item.

To Shirky’s recent observation that struck me as so absolutely true in a known and completely mundane way : “…what you see with these user groups, whether it’s for reality TV or science fiction, is that people love the conversation around the shows.” Not that that was his main point here. But it’s true, right? We negotiate experience differently when we feel like we are all going through it for the first time. There’s less of a caste system of amateurs and old-timers. We’re bolder about our pronouncements, more democratic. The possibility for reinterpretation is more dramatic with 99 people going through a course at once than for 99 people being absorbed into a profession or discipline one at a time.

It may be good, it may be bad, but it’s there.

I’ve been thinking about how this is such a pervasive problem in all aspects of culture. TV should be dead, by rights. Ages ago. But the one thing it provides is a serialization mechanism for art, where there’s at least a chance that you could talk to somebody that has seen Episode 8 of Lost, but not Episode 9.

Netflix could solve this of course, and reinvigorate a lot of series in the process. What you would need, ala Hirst, is a serialization mechanism (and here, again, talking in terms of the original meaning of serialization, not it’s specialized computer science meaning). You and your friends sign up to watch the mid-90s series Earth 2, and it delivers you an episode a week. Or every three days. Or each night. Whatever — as long as it allows for shared reflection in between the events.

In other words, you become a cohort, moving through these series in sync so that everyone shares a similar interpretative environment. If Netflix added that, and just that, to its Watch Instantly offerings, it would would change the digital delivery of old TV shows into something entirely different. The same way P2PU would transform the face of OCW use, and the same way Tony’s experiments are pushing the delivery bar.

The “class” is dead, as is the “audience”. Long live the cohort.

8 thoughts on “Rise of the Cohort, Educational and Otherwise

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    1. Cohort sounds too formal and too constrained, but what’s in a name? My personal choice is Community of Inquiry.

    2. Much more fundamental though: In designing “digital ecologies”/ “virtual adaptive networks” for learning, the crucial shift is to move completely away from content-driven events to activity-driven events.

    This gets us to the starting blocks for connectivist / inquiry-based / problem-based / activity-based learning /networked / CoP or workshop -based learning. Pick a term and an approach to suit your needs, but this is the threshold for learning now, surely?

    So the serialisation mechanism is often required – it is a key driver for community, and learning is social and contextual, in many ways, no?

    But …
    Focus serialisation on what the ‘community’ / cohort will DO, not what they CONSUME – sorry to put it so starkly, but I am not sure there is that much ‘grey’ left in this issue.

  2. Thanks, roy.

    I’m a little confused on this though:

    “Focus serialisation on what the ‘community’ / cohort will DO, not what they CONSUME – sorry to put it so starkly, but I am not sure there is that much ‘grey’ left in this issue.”

    Serialization by nature draws from static content. That content may have expository elements, but also imperative elements (“after reading this — find a problem in your town and blog about it”). So maybe we’re just defining things differently.

    But I’m not sure, if we follow the standard content+interaction+assessment view of things that you can serialize interaction — that would imply interaction was a set store of something that could be cut into chunks, when in fact it is the emergent element of the class…within content there are cues for the interaction and activities, these are what get serialized.

    But perhaps I am misunderstanding you.

  3. Mike, it might be a matter of emphasis,but I think its more than that. I suppose I am turning learning design ‘on its head’ to some extent, but this approach is (I hope) built on the now secure foundation of the hyper-(linked)-text environment that external (Internet) and ‘internal’ (both Intranet and private web-based wikis, etc) resources provide.

    Two considerations:

    Topic/ content
    I work across Engineering, Computing, Education, Environmental Management, and it is possible in all these fields to define a series of topics, each one in 50/100 words, and for each topic to specify an activity: design, construct, research, compare, change, apply, calculate, plan, analyse, etc, or combinations of these.

    Each activity requires access to content. But here you can offer a number of choices – self-managed choices:

    0. The learner might already know enough to complete the activity, or know where to find it, so they dont need to access any content in the course – on the contrary, you might get them to contribute their content TO the course.

    1. The learner might need to check the basic content that you, as course designer, regard as relevant to the activity – which they can decide to explore and check to see that they are on the right track.

    2. The learner might need much more than the basic content, either at a more elementary level or, if they are determined to excel, at a more advanced level.

    Layered Self-managed Resources
    The way this is operationalised is to provide layered content at three or four levels: basic, more detailed, more elementary, more advanced, and make it all available for the learner to link to, and use. Only the most basic content is ‘up front’ in the text, or described and linked to in the main text.

    Students have to decide how much content they need, and at what level, for each activity. This forces them to self-manage their resource requirements for each activity, and within a single, navigable web-page structure, they do it very largely without instruction.

    The interesting thing for me is that what emerges from the use of this approach for designing ‘learning objects’ (topic + activity + layered resources) is a series of web-pages each of which is aimed, at first glance, at an above average student – i.e. someone who may or may not need the content resources that have been provided, but certainly will not need all of them.

    The average or struggling student, as well as the student who really wants to excel, will need to explore the content in more depth, and ‘drill down’/out to further layers.

    There is a published article on this approach: “Flexible Learning for Engineering” in: Innovations and Research in Engineering Education special edition, Fall, 2007, but its an expensive publication. I can send you a copy of the article if you are interested.

  4. I must thank you for the efforts you’ve put in penning this blog. I really hope to see the same high-grade content from you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own, personal blog now 😉

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