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Class Central

Introducing Class Central Cohorts: Social Learning for Open Courses

After Study Groups and Bootcamp, Cohorts represent a new milestone in our social learning experiment.

Report card for Class Central’s internal study groups: 7 courses, 29 completions.

From internal study groups to public study groups to an 8,000 learner bootcamp, Class Central’s social learning experiment has come a long way. Now, it’s evolving into its next phase: Class Central Cohorts.

Cohorts can be led by a peer, a subject matter expert, or even the instructor of the course itself. Cohorts are our attempt to add a social layer to free online courses.

I did my first MOOC back in 2011, before they were even called “MOOCs”. It had 160,000 learners, and the forums were buzzing with activity. New posts were added every few minutes.

In 2021, this experience might be hard to replicate, but we do have the advantage of better video-conferencing software and a massive catalog of online courses

You can experience this right now by joining our Wharton Marketing and Dino 101 Cohorts / Study Groups (the rebranding is ongoing).

We’re still working on our Spring 2022 Cohort line-up, which we’ll announce soon. If you are an instructor, content creator, or just a dedicated learner who wants to run a Cohort, reach out to @fabio at [email protected] 

Class Central Cohorts

Cohorts Screenshot
Cohorts Portal

A Cohort has three main components:

  • An online course — that we’re all taking, following a common study schedule.
  • A discussion forum — where we discuss our learning and support each other.
  • Weekly Zoom sessions or live streams — where we chat with peers.

The concept is very flexible. Some of our live sessions were led by instructors, some by peers, and some by subject matter experts. For our 8,000 learner Free Web Development Bootcamp we’re using live streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube. In our History of Science Cohort, the course was a YouTube playlist.

When we first tested out the concept, we cobbled together a bunch of tools to make it work: enrollments were done through google forms; learners had to create a separate account to participate in the forum; and we sent announcements via our Gmail accounts using BCC (one time, Google suspended one of our accounts for sending too many emails).

We knew this wasn’t going to work for the 8,000 learner bootcamp, and as we validated the idea, we could afford to expand our platform. So we rushed to build a portal that makes handling the logistics really simple. 

Learners can now access information like the study schedule, getting-started instructions, and upcoming streams and recordings all in one place. We also integrated the Discourse forums, so learners can use their Class Central account for everything instead of creating a separate one.

Coordinators can accept enrollments, create a study schedule, post announcements (like weekly updates), and create events (for Zoom sessions) which are sent to learners automatically.

Cohorts, the concept and product, are still very much under development. The three major components — the course, discussion forum, and live sessions — can live anywhere. In fact, behind the scenes, the study schedule is powered by Class Central Lists. So the “course” itself could be a custom learning path, bringing together various learning sources.

We’re still experimenting with what to do during live sessions (especially when they’re led by peers) and thinking about how to make them more interactive — maybe additional projects, assignments, or presentations? For Mountains 101, we had a long thread with people posting photos of their favourite mountains.

Back When MOOCs were Massive

My first two MOOC certificates: Stanford’s Algorithms & AI

I still long for the “good old days” of MOOCs.

I remember going to the forums just before the weekly deadlines and feeling that everybody was online at the same time, doing the same thing. The shared experience, hard deadlines, and help from the community enabled me to finish courses that required significant effort — almost as much as an actual university course.

But by 2016 it was clear MOOCs were no longer Massive. Scaling MOOCs required removing professors from the active role of running the course and moving towards a self-paced schedule.

In 2017, I proposed a MOOC Semester to make MOOCs massive again by bringing back some of the characteristics that made them popular in the first place: semi-synchronous, instructor-led and sufficiently hyped.

Cohorts are an embodiment of the MOOC semester to a certain extent. Class Central’s goal is to make online education work for everyone, and Cohorts are a step in that direction. We’re a team of learners who have completed hundreds of online courses, including online degrees.

From Study Groups to Bootcamp

Mountains 101 study group’s first Zoom call. I’m top center, David Hik is to my right, and Barbara Oakley is at bottom left.

Last year, a few of us at Class Central formed a remote study group to take an online course together. We loved it so much that we kept doing it.

Before this, I went through a period of more than 4 years without finishing a course. But since we started Study Groups, I’ve completed 8 (only one of those was without peers).

Eventually, we opened up the experiment to the whole world and announced a public study group for Mountains 101. Originally, we’d just be learning with peers. But to our delight, ​​one of the instructors of the course, David Hik, reached out to us to offer his help and be part of the experiment.

The legendary Barbara Oakley, who has 4 million learners on Coursera and five courses in Class Central’s Best of All Time ranking, took part in the Mountains 101 Study Group as a student. Some of her feedback made the Zoom sessions even more engaging.

During our first weeks of study, Zac Robinson, also course co-instructor, climbed Canada’s highest peak. Upon return, he managed to join one of the Zoom sessions and gave us a first-hand account of how the expedition went. It was an extraordinary adventure.

Two people from the Mountains 101 study group ended up joining the Class Central Team.

@fabio (bottom center in the Zoom image above), an ESL instructor from Brazil who ran the recently concluded Crash Course History of Science Study Group, joined Class Central to manage future Cohorts. You can read his Mountains 101 review here: What Would Make Someone Take an Online Course about Mountains and Stick Till the End?

@mervyn (just above Fabio in the image above), a mechatronics engineer from Andhra Pradesh in India, will be coordinating the Dino 101 Cohort which started just this week.

Study Group for the online course A Life of Happiness & Fulfillment
ALOHAF first Zoom session. Dr. Raj on the top left, I am in the top row center. Try to find Mervyn and Fabio (hint: they are right next to each other)

One of our next Study Groups, in which we took A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment from the Indian School of Business, was even bigger: 700 enrollments and 120 people showed up to the first Zoom session, which were led by the charismatic course instructor Dr. Raj.

Here is what @archishabhar (who has also recently joined Class Central!) had to say in her review of the Study Group, How Fulfilling is a Course on Happiness?

Happiness being an abstract topic, the threads in the forum ranged from simple to philosophical, as each learner shared their own thoughts and experiences, including beautiful photos, research works, advice, achievements, friendly encouragement, and all-around appreciation for each other. Learners came from a variety of age groups, but that didn’t prevent us from understanding each other.


The most awaited part of the Study Group was the weekly live session with Dr. Raj. They started 30 minutes before Dr. Raj joined, and ended long after he left. During this extra time, learners had friendly conversations with each other and shared interesting facts related to the course. Once Dr. Raj arrived, the atmosphere completely changed. All eyes would be on him. He would give mini-lectures on the topics covered in that week, and then open the floor for questions and thoughts. He interacted with as many learners as possible and kept the sessions lively. These were so much fun. The hour went by in an instant.


These experiences boosted our confidence, and we moved on to the next phase of the experiment: a Free Web Development Bootcamp.

Components of the Web Development Bootcamp

This time, we partnered with technologist Jessica Rose. The Bootcamp is structured around the Responsive Web Design Certification offered by the nonprofit freeCodeCamp

Instead of Zoom sessions, Jess runs weekly live streams in two time zones on Twitch and YouTube. She also hosts guest streams, with a new guest every week. Our first speakers were Barbara Oakley and senior software engineer Zach Caceres who talked to our bootcampers about The Intuitive Programmer. The YouTube stream alone generated ~2k hours of watch time.

It took some trial and error and serendipity to get here. I would like to thank David Hik and Zac Robinson (Mountains 101 Study Group), Dr. Raj Raghunathan (ALOHAF), Nicky Bull (Excel), Jessica Rose and her gracious guests, and finally Barbara Oakley, for all their help.

We’re preparing our Class Central Cohorts Spring line-up. Stay tuned!

Dhawal Shah Profile Image

Dhawal Shah

Dhawal is the CEO of Class Central, the most popular search engine and review site for online courses and MOOCs. He has completed over a dozen MOOCs and has written over 200 articles about the MOOC space, including contributions to TechCrunch, EdSurge, Quartz, and VentureBeat.

Comments 3

  1. Tyler Hillery

    I love what Class Central is doing for the MOOC industry. Self-Learning can be daunting with the vast amount of content available. Being able to provide structure and clarity to this space is immensely helpful. Now adding the social aspect is taking MOOCs to another level. Keep up the great work!

  2. Kevin Ford The Submariner

    I too long for the old days of MOOCs when they were massive. Delighted to learn what Class Central is doing to restore that experience. The Medical Democrat http://medical.democrat is an online free medical school for everyone that could benefit from this social model. I’ll follow up on that.

  3. Steve Yost

    Fascinating, and great timing! I just created a site to help propagate a similar idea that we’ve had great success with. We effectively fostered a three-year-long, pretty consistent local Cohort of learners. We’re just now reflecting on what’s made this work so well, and we’ll continue to develop the site around this. I’d love to connect and talk with you further! Would you like to set up a meeting?



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