Modern Learning Empires

How IDEO U Built a Cohort-Based Learning Empire Serving Over 80K Students in 7 Years

Negin Sairafi
March 24, 2022

Building and scaling your learning business is both a science and an art.

Suzanne Howard is a partner at IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation companies, and the founder and Dean of IDEO U, a digital learning platform that has served over 80,000 students through various forms of cohort-based learning since 2014.

IDEO U was a response to the digital learning movement and built with the intention to design a scalable business model that offered more accessible and well-designed learning experiences to a global market. Here’s how they did it.

What Academies and Bootcamps can learn from IDEO U's keys to global success


Use rapid prototyping cycles of see, try, share, and reflect to better understand your ideal learner and differentiate your live learning offering(s). This approach can also be used to guide your learners through an experience that leads to their transformation. Organizations learn by doing and individuals do too.


You may have 100+ learners in your cohort and you can create intimacy at scale by using tools like sub-groups and by designing experiences that encourage peer-to-peer learning. IDEO U’s community based learning experiences have a 70-80% completion rate, a clear indicator that a strong learning community not only enhances the learner’s experience but leads to better results for the business.


In learning design, if folks don't feel safe, they're not likely to openly share in that community. Establishing safety encourages sharing and it’s often in the sharing where deep learning and significant growth happen.


Design for scale and prioritize personalization and meaningful engagement. Realistically manage your team’s time and ensure that your learners are clear about the time commitment involved in participating in your course. Great live learning experiences balance the tension between structure and flexibility.

“We are constantly looking at other learning experiences and thinking, how do we design great learning? What are the tensions that we're balancing in a learning experience?
“There's this delicate balance of structure and flexibility. Everyone will always say they want utmost flexibility. But we know if you don't provide pupils structure and deadlines, no learning happens. We know it needs to be personalized and get social, we know it needs to be at scale, but also engaging.”


Design a sustainable business model by testing content for desirability, feasibility, and viability. Create content to test topic ideas and get feedback through various channels about what’s actually resonating with your ideal learners. Use paid ads to A/B test content ideas to drive and gauge interest in your live experiences and use the results to decide what to move forward with.


Implement documentation processes and create a resource library to capture everything that is happening behind the scenes in your learning organization. From training and onboarding, to tactics, rubrics, and best practices, aggregate learning across your team in order to design better learning experiences and scale your learning empire.


With the rapid growth of live learning, academies and bootcamps must continue to prioritize the needs, challenges, and goals of their ideal learner. Things like accreditation, certification, and potential job opportunities are really important. Is your ideal learner trying to do their job better? Are they making a lateral move within their company? Are they transitioning their career? Determine your ideal learner’s pain points and design a transformative learning experience that will lead them to their desired outcome.  


Compartmentalize your budget for the development of your live experience, for experimentation, marketing, and your team’s time. Determine the true cost of your course, the true cost of building and running your live learning business, and then ask the question: how can we make this more financially accessible? You could offer scholarships or a sliding scale payment model, there are many possibilities once you are clear about your budget and your constraints.


Growing your learning business requires understanding what initiatives are resonating with your ideal learner. From video engagement to assignment completion to live course participation, capturing and pulling insights from metrics will not only help you design better learning experiences but also to create more impactful marketing strategies that increase referral rates.

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