Using Cohorts to Build an Online Learning Community

Award Winner: 
2005 Sloan-C Effective Practice Award
Author Information
Author(s): 
Boria Sax, Mercy Colle
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Mercy College
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The cohort structure of The Masters of Science in Organizational Behavior (MSOL) ONLINE at Mercy College creates an extensive learning community for the students in this non-resident, 12-month interdisciplinary graduate program by providing opportunities for consistent supportive interactions between students, between online students and the larger Mercy community, between students and instructors, between students and their mentors, and between the instructors themselves.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Because of the supportive interaction among students and between students and their mentor in this learning community, retention in the MSOL ONLINE is 90%. Furthermore, students who have to withdraw for personal reasons, such as major, unexpected illnesses or being called into active duty in Iraq, return to the program, entering a new cohort, as soon as their personal crisis is over. Students in a permanent cohort, 12-month cohort, with a permanently assigned mentor, and a permanent team of instructors, report a transformation in their academic, personal and professional development. Documented program outcomes indicate that the geographic MSOL program prepares students to perform effectively in a leadership role in their organizations, as reported by nearly all of MSOL graduates. Similar data is now being collected to document these results for the online program as well.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

learning effectiveness: Mercy College uses a cohort structure for The Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) ONLINE at Mercy College to create an extensive learning community for the students in this non-resident, 12-month interdisciplinary graduate program by providing opportunities for consistent supportive interactions between students, between online students and the larger Mercy community, between students and instructors, between students and their mentors, and between the instructors themselves. In addition, various courses in the program provide an opportunity for interaction between students and experts in the field of leadership. Each student is placed in a cohort, and all students in every cohort, are assigned the same faculty mentor, who will:

  1. Support, guide and instruct students in the development of their Research Projects;
  2. Support, guide and instruct students in their personal/professional leadership development.

The mentor's availability to students and other members of the MSOL ONLINE faculty is a key factor in sustaining an effective learning community. The role of the mentor in the MSOL ONLINE expands beyond the traditional responsibilities of supporting, guiding, and instructing students in the development of their Research Projects to include being available, as needed, to facilitate the student's leadership development. The mentors and instructors work together as a community with the members of the MSOL ONLINE cohort. The mentor and the instructor for each Integrative Case Study function as a complementary team, supporting, guiding, and instructing students in the development of their Research Projects.

Since this structure is the same online and on campus, students in both venues can communicate with each other and share experiences. Furthermore, any student in a campus cohort who is faced with a change in his work schedule that makes it impossible to continue to attend a campus program can seamlessly transfer to an online cohort. Because the students all have had the same learning and developmental experiences in their on campus and online courses, they can easily relate to each other. Any student who may have missed a campus course because of illness or unanticipated work-related travel requirements can make up the course in another campus cohort or in an online cohort. For corporate cohorts, the curriculum is further customized to ensure a direct correlation between organizational initiatives and student learning. Through team-based, transformational learning experiences, the MSOL program provides students with opportunities to apply their learning to dynamic, real-time situations in their organizations. Research has shown that the academic, personal and professional support students receive from the learning environment is an important factor in their academic success. Because of the cohort structure, students in the MSOL ONLINE become increasingly aware of their own academic, personal, and professional development, as well as the academic personal, and professional development of their peers. Relying on the consistent support they receive from their fellow students, their instructors and their mentor, they become more intrinsically motivated and self-directed and more self-confident and secure in all learning environments.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The cost is that of a normal college program minus money that is saved by incorporating training, scheduling and advising into the program (See "Cost Effectiveness" under "Relation to Other Pillars").

References, supporting documents: 

Drago-Severson, El.; Helsing, D.; Kegan, R.; Popp, N.; Broderick, M.; and Portnow, K. "The Power of a Cohort and of Collaborative Groups." Focus on Basics 5, Issue B (October 2001): 15-22. http://ncsall.gse.harvard.edu/fob/2001/fob_5ib.pdf

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Barbara Benjamin, Director, MSOL ONLINE
Email this contact: 
bbenjamin@mercy.edu