The Transformative Power of CBC's: Cohort-Based Courses

Ever stumble onto something that feels like it might be right on the cusp of getting big? Like, really big? That just clicks with you, becomes very real when you experience it, and then makes you think: “It’s just a matter of time before everybody else comes around to this”? Maybe a book, an album, a new app?

I had that feeling when I waltzed into a movie theater in Austin, Texas to see “The Matrix” on the night it premiered: an initial, stunned “whoa”; followed by “yes!”; and then the conviction that everyone else would soon be high-fiving me in wild agreement.

I had the same feeling again this past month, after enrolling in David Perrell’s, Write of Passage. Write of Passage is a “CBC”, or cohort-based course, which is a category of online education exploding in popularity right now. Here’s a solid definition of one:

“A cohort-based course is taken by a group of students (a cohort) at the same time. It can take place online, in a virtual space, or in a physical classroom. A group of students enters a course together, and over a specific period of time they go through the syllabus, together. The time-bound nature of a cohort-based course along with the fact that students are mastering the material together is what differentiates it from a self-paced course where students can consume the course material alone and a course community is optional.”

CBC’s may be less action-packed than the Matrix, but I’m excited about them for many of the reasons that the Matrix blew me away: they both challenged a lot of my long-held beliefs and assumptions, and redefined what I thought was possible. The Matrix challenged and inspired me to think differently about the nature of reality; Write of Passage, as a CBC, has shown me the potential that online learning has to transform students and education, both..

This piece is meant as primer for the uninitiated: a condensation of existing thinking on CBC’s, combined with my own observations and experience as a student in one. I’ll use what’s been written by founders and thought leaders in the space to outline the core pieces that make a course “cohort-based”. But I’ll also weave in my own perspective as a student in a CBC, and talk more explicitly about two key enablers of CBC’s that I think are largely missing from the conversation right now: vulnerability, and peer-learning.

A Sea of CBC’s

Some examples of CBC’s might help bring the concept to life, and provide a sense of the diversity of courses that are unfolding. Tiago Forte runs Building a Second Brain -- a CBC that cleared a million dollars on its most recent cohort launch. Shivani Berry offers Ascend. Li Jin is putting on Building for the Creator Economy right now. And Cam Houser runs Minimum Viable Video. Gagan Biyani founded a successful online education company called Udemy -- a non-CBC, “learn-as-you-go” site offering thousands of courses and skills. But Gagan is credited with coining the term CBC, and is now founding a company in the CBC space with Wes Kao and Shreyans Bhansali.

The must-have ingredients of a great CBC that make it powerful

Let’s look at the key components of a CBC: community, accountability, urgency, vulnerability, and peer learning. We want to understand how they relate to one another, and how they combine to make a CBC so unique and powerful.

Community + Accountability

Community is so critical to the CBC experience that it’s tempting to rebrand CBC’s as CDC’s: “community-driven courses”.

There are lots of viable definitions of community, but to ground what is such a foundational component, I like this one:

“[A sense of community is] a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together."

Greg Isenberg writes extensively about Internet communities and how businesses can create and leverage them, and he does a fantastic job of capturing why they’re so powerful -- with a pithy rhyme, no less!

"Vast has passed. As the internet is becoming increasingly bespoke, we crave smaller, more thoughtful communities."

Experiencing Write of Passage has allowed me to appreciate the leverage that an online community can add to learning. As well as how community-driven learning fosters another key aspect of a CBC: accountability.

From Tiago again: “Cohort-based learning reinvents in a virtual environment the many layers of social accountability and support found in traditional schools.

Speaking personally, every time I consider putting anything less into the course or the learning that I -- and my peers -- are having, I feel starkly accountable based on the fact that:

  • I’m surrounded by other students on the same learning journey, who are highly-motivated, like-minded, and have been extremely generous to me. I simply do not want to let down
  • As students are all investing a ton of our most precious resource -- time -- into this course
  • We have all made a financial investment to be able to be a part of it


Wes Kao, who for years ran a pioneering CBC called altMBA, wrote that, “Cohort-based courses have a start and end date. This sense of urgency (from a deadline) is exactly what most of us need to get our shit together and focus.”

As a student in the CBC, it’s a simple equation for me: there is a small, fast-closing window in which to learn, and that window is peppered with deadlines and deliverables that I hate to miss.


There’s another critical concept of CBC’s that I think the existing writing dances around, but fails to adequately recognize. A concept that needs and deserves to be credited for the role it plays in an impactful CBC: vulnerability. If there is a secret ingredient in this secret sauce of a CBC, vulnerability would be it.

Brené Brown is oft-cited on this topic, and uses a helpful definition:

"Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences...I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."

The Write of Passage experience has had so much to do with taking risk, and accepting emotional exposure. When you opt into the course, and commit to it on the many levels that you do, you implicitly signal that you want to get better at something you’re not good at. That you want to become something you are not. It requires putting yourself “out there” -- with all that this implies in terms of acceptance of risk, fear and insecurity.

This idea crystallized for me instantly, in the first few minutes of our first class, when I saw the maze of tiny faces on that Zoom call. I remember scrolling through them, getting my head around the sea of intense, intent faces dialing in from every corner of the world; going into a breakout room to talk about why we had joined the course, and understanding: “Wow, you’re like me. We are prone, and we’re in this together.” That realization, coming as it did on day one, changed everything.


The thought leaders we learned from above explicitly reference students as key sources of support and accountability in a CBC. But I think we should be explicit in saying that the power of a cohort-based case also comes from the fact that students are also teachers from whom other students are constantly learning. Students learn from one another’s questions, their technical acumen, their feedback, their willingness to be vulnerable with one another -- and from the diversity of thought, experience, place and voice that others students bring to the learning.

In Write of Passage right now I learn a ton from David as the course builder and founder, I learn from alumni mentors -- and I learn from the many, brilliant students, all over the world, who have opted into the journey with me.

Transformation: the ultimate promise of a CBC

So, what do we get when we combine all these pieces?


Ultimately, CBC’s combine community, accountability, urgency, vulnerability and peer-learning to deliver something exceedingly unique and powerful: transformation. The best course builders realize this, set a clear destination for students, then set about guiding them through that transformation.

Will Mannon, Course Director of Write of Passage, analogized the course to a trojan horse: “You come for writing, but it's a shift or transformation you get. Write of Passage is about vulnerability and personal growth.”

Referring to her altMBA CBC, Wes Kao put it like this: "We begin everything we do (and teach) with the question, “What is it for?” Our answer is: To change people. To fundamentally alter the way that they see. Scale is not the point. Change is the point."

Andrew Barry, Program Director at OnDeck: “Strive to create intentional, meaningful, human to human interaction. If you do, people feel transformed; your goal is transformation.”

A well-designed and well-run CBC that combines these ingredients makes for an incredible cocktail. I would know: I’ve taken a big swig, and feel nothing less than transformed.

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