Cohort-Based Online Communities: Exploitation or Real Connection?

If you threw a random group of people together, united primarily by a shared educational goal that they can accomplish with or without the group, and had two weeks to build a sense of community among them, what would you do?

That’s what Alex Witkowski spends time thinking about. He’s the community lead for Section4, which offers business courses they call sprints. These sprints are typically around two weeks long and then the experience is over – if you want it to be. If you don’t want it to be, you can continue to benefit from and collaborate with the students that took the same course.

Alex oversees a team of four community managers that guides this growing number or cohorts and hopes to bring then together through an upcoming alumni membership program. He also believes that cohort-based communities often exploit community rather than build it. We chat about that, plus:

  • Alex’s transition from English teacher to community pro and the condescension he felt when making the move
  • How he determines when a community manager simply has too many cohorts
  • Why Slack may not be the right tool for their alumni product

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Big Quotes

Checking your assumptions when interviewing job candidates (05:02): “I’m doing a lot of interviewing, I’m doing a lot of hiring, and I’m trying to be hyper cognizant of everything in an interview process [that] is an assumption. … I’ve been trying to be really aware of making assumptions and holding people back from opportunities, just because I’m assuming they won’t be able to make [a specific] change.” –@HeyLifeboat

The Section4 community helps students apply course knowledge in the real world (10:55): “I’m really hoping to build the continuing community around this idea of application. We all have this shared language, we all have these concepts, and I often think about it as the marriage of: We can offer the book smarts, the community is where the street smarts comes in. … We can’t give you every answer for what this looks like in a B2B SaaS context in our two-week course, but we can connect you to people who can engage in discussion with how they’re thinking about applying it to a B2B SaaS context.” –@HeyLifeboat

Section4’s community managers focus on bringing humanness to the community (17:11): “I’ve taken other online courses before, [and] I couldn’t name one person at the company. I’ve never interacted with anyone. I didn’t feel a connection to them. I felt the connection to the course, but [at Section4], I feel like there’s a connection to our ethos, which has been really exciting.” –@HeyLifeboat

Section4’s community managers focus on bringing humanness to the community (31:14): “Oftentimes the self-promoters are some of the loudest, nastiest people that you have in professional groups. They are the ones who respond most offensively when challenged on it. They will attack the community manager, or they will say, ‘Of course, I’m not doing that. This is relevant! You’re going to kill the community! The community’s never been the same since Patrick took over!’ This is all stuff that you have to hear and deal with. Those are some of the worst folks in professional circles, but yet, if you let them do it because it’s easier in the moment to not take their abuse, it is its own insidious thing that infects the space.” –@patrickokeefe

What does community-based learning actually mean? (54:57): “As someone who taught for six years, there’s an art to education, and throwing out a bunch of articles or a handful of videos and then dumping people in the space together and hoping that something happens, that’s not education. I think that’s where the word ‘community,’ to me, feels exploitative. … Just because there are other people here doesn’t mean it’s a community.” –@HeyLifeboat

About Alex Witkowski

Alex Witkowski is a former high school English teacher who left the profession when he found out that he could take the best part of his job – nurturing community – and do it full time. Since leaving teaching, he has worked in the non-profit and educational technology space, helping a variety of communities including global volunteers, college students, college professors, and business professionals make valuable connections and memories. He is currently the community lead at Section4, which aims to make MBA-quality education more affordable and accessible through interactive, community-based courses led by the world’s top business professors. In his spare time, he watches countless independent movies, makes themed mixtapes, and walks everywhere.

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