Dr. Mike Barger: Educating 160K through CorpU

Discover how Dr. Mike Barger, co-founder of JetBlue, educated 160K through CorpU.

What you'll learn in this article:

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Taking his first solo flight at seven years old is only one of many remarkable things Mike Barger has done in his life and career. He's also a PhD, a teacher, and a co-founder of some of the world's biggest and most storied organizations.

To say Dr. Mike Barger has had a historic career is an understatement.

Let's start with the highlights: co-founder of JetBlue Airways, chief pilot and flight instructor at Top Gun flight school (you know, the one the movie made famous), as well as a Professor of Business Administration and Executive Director at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Mike also holds a Master's in Learning Leadership and a Doctor of Education degree.

With such a lucrative career in education, leadership, and business design, it only makes sense that Mike Barger had a hand in founding CorpU, a learning community and course designed for emerging and established global leaders, as its former chief operations officer. To date, CorpU has launched a staggering 16,000 cohorts of 160,000 learners worldwide.

According to the course catalog, CorpU covers a range of courses and programs dedicated to leadership topics including:

  • Decision Making
  • Diversity & Inclusion
  • Employee Engagement
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Influence and Persuasion
  • Innovation
  • Marketing
  • Negotiation
  • Project Management
  • Strategy
  • Talent Development

The program is so well designed in successfully creating the future of business leadership, it was acquired by Udemy — one of the world's largest learning platform aggregates — in 2021.

Now, Mike is sharing decades' worth of insight: from his stint as a Naval Officer to founding one of the most successful airlines in history to educating hundreds of thousands of students, both virtually through CorpU and in person as a university professor. His experience in shaping modern-day and future learning opportunities is worth its weight in gold, particularly for other founders and operators of online or cohort-based learning businesses.

Insights and inspiration from Dr. Mike Barger, former chief operating officer of CorpU and founder of JetBlue Airways

Understand human interest and where you can add value to create a transformative learning experience

In his years of teaching experience, one critical learning sticks out to Mike as a must-know for other founders, entrepreneurs, and teachers: You'll only succeed if your members or followers or students are learning skills that can improve their life.

As Mike shares “What most people are interested in learning are things that can improve their life somehow; whether to just feel better about themselves, to become more capable with some sort of a self-serving skill—or they want to cook better or they want to scuba dive better or do something better with their family, or gain some sort of a professional benefit.”

Understanding human interest — and, even more granularly, what value your members or students are looking to add to their lives — is a key part of launching and sustaining a successful bootcamp or virtual academy.

“My teaching background was always grounded in ‘What can I do to help people be a little bit better tomorrow than they were today or yesterday?' I think people generally learn best when they can see or feel or clearly understand the value of what they're learning. In my experience, the most effective educators have been able to really capitalize on that.”

It's with this philosophy in mind that Mike Barger explains how he approaches course design, whether it's for Top Gun or CorpU or now as a college professor; the core function to design and the inspiration behind it remains the same no matter where or what you're learning:

“One of the things you have to do with folks is help them see that there is actually an opportunity to learn something. In the university environment, or in the online digital education environment, I think the challenge for us as [course] designers is how to create a scenario where it's really clear to a learner that this is a problem they don't have a good answer to right now or that they'd be able to solve right now without learning something new.”

Finding a way to translate that notion into learning programs — all of them, be them virtual, in-person, self-paced or cohort-based — is where Mike says the magic happens.

“I think it's really hard for people to stay engaged with things if it's not kind of immediately impactful or interesting or engaging. Netflix could probably teach us a little bit about that, right? I think that's a challenge for us as educators, to create something that is really just interesting and engaging right from the very beginning because otherwise, I think people will tune us out.”

This is how Mike has approached seeding and communicating the value for CorpU and now his course at University of Michigan. This idea of making it interesting and engaging from the jump is critical to not only enrollment in these courses but the completion and success rates from them. To do this, he poses a question or a hypothetical situation (in this case, relating to business leadership) that gets the gears turning.

He shares, “So I think creating a situation where it's challenging enough that it elicits some emotion, but it's not so far-fetched that people can't relate to it begs the question, ‘Okay, well, I, I think I know what I might do, but can you help me think through the options of what we probably could do and should do?' That's how you drop people in.”

Alen Faljic of d.MBA shares a similar philosophy of course design based on competence and care for all members (that really, really works). Read about it here.

Create a space safe enough for everyone to contribute

To create transformative learning experiences, you have to create the space to allow transformation to happen. If the dozens of cohort-based courses, bootcamps, and academies we partner with have taught us anything, that transformation happens at the peer-to-peer level, amidst deep conversation, idea exchange, and experience sharing.

“Even when I was building courses at CorpU and working with faculty to build those courses, I would look our faculty in the eye and say ‘Look, the reality is that, for the typical learner in this course, you know nothing about them. You know nothing about who they are, what they really want, nor the environment that they're going to try to apply what they're learning in. So we have to create a space that allows these people to bring their own lived experience and their own reality to these courses," Mike says.

Through this leadership, Mike has been able to create an environment in all of his courses, virtual or otherwise, that celebrates the individual experience barred from any misconceptions or assumptions. This environment also fosters transformative conversation amongst peers and colleagues so every member or student can apply their learnings to their personal lives:

“That's how I think about designing online learning experiences: I will present to you a foundation of what my research and experience has taught me about dealing with crisis situations. But I'm going to create just as much space for you and your colleagues to talk about the things that are more or less meaningful in your own context.”

Mike acknowledges the challenge in getting large cohorts or classrooms — like his CorpU cohorts that often contained 100-200 or more people — to break off in meaningful, intimate ways.

“I'll say that it's very challenging to create a space that feels safe enough for everyone to contribute. I am reasonably certain that it would be next to impossible to get every one of our participants to honestly and transparently say, ‘Yes, this is a problem here' or ‘Yes, I'm really concerned that if we don't solve this thing, I don't know if I can stay here.' Those are really big, difficult topics to bring up in a group conversation.”

Rather than put the ownness back on the student, he shifts responsibility to the technology we leverage in the classroom to make these deep-seeded interactions possible.

“That's the design challenge of the technologists that build these platforms. How do you design an experience and create a technology that makes it as easy as possible for people to actually bring their lived experience and their transparent thoughts and feelings to these conversations so that you can get them out in the open?” Mike shares.

This idea is mission-critical for anyone building a bootcamp, academy, or a virtual school: Creating or leveraging available technology that can allow for unabashed, transparent idea exchange is the only way you'll create those transformative experiences and more intimate groupings amongst members who share kindred ideas, backgrounds, or goals.

Mike notes during our conversation that typically, people tend to be more “real” behind a screen or online, so leveraging a chat room, Slack, or another virtual forum may best lend itself to open conversation without guardrails.

Hyrise Academy works at a global scale to upskill future generations of sales professionals, and they do so by creating intimate subgroups within cohorts for more impactful learning. Read more about how successful that endeavor has been here.

Combine synchronous and asycnhronous work to give members multiple touchpoints

Mike Barger has learned a lot about designing courses and updating content to continue iterating for future generations of CorpU and now University of Michigan students, especially as a means of scaling membership and matching growth goals with customer experience capabilities.

One of the key features he's found works in a multitude of learning environments is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous work. What works for one course or academy won't work for another, but it's important that your members have some touchpoint or moment of truth or opportunity to recap that's synchronous with peers to share what they've learned with one another.

Mike shares: “So of those 160,000, people convened in groups of 20 or 30, we believed in some combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. The courses almost always had a synchronous component at the end of each week-long module. It was a three or four to one ratio of asynchronous time to synchronous time. That's something that we even built into our online MBA here at Michigan. I think that we're all learning in the digital world about how hard it is to keep engagement going when there's not some sort of a synchronous milestone or anchor point or something where you can bring everyone back together and say ‘Alright, here's where we've been and here are the key takeaways so now we're going to springboard to this next concept.' That's a good design for things.”

With this model, CorpU was still able to create intimate moments within cohorts of any size while still scaling to meet growth-based goals. Regularly iterating content to meet the goals of each cohort was another important factor that contributed to member growth and success, and it involved a lot of flexibility:

Mike shares, “If you build the learning experience effectively, what's going to happen with each cohort is they're going to have their own unique set of needs and interests and capabilities. Each cohort actually has its own personality, as well. So when you build these courses, you start with the same building blocks that really are the foundation of what you've learned through research and experience and then kind of toss it out to the cohort and say, ‘Well, where do you think this needs to go?'

Mike goes on to say he'd let each cohort choose from a list of topics or brainstorm their own ideas to determine the direction of the course.

He says “The cohort would say, ‘Well, it's actually number two that you gave us on that list is the big issue that the most complex business challenges that we have, so let's spend some time on number two.' And so if you build your courses that way, you can still deliver a consistent foundational set of materials and contents, but still allow the cohort to actually tailor the progression of the course. That's where I think pedagogy and andragogy collide.”

School16 is another example of how impactful it can be to bake flexibility into your business model and course design. See how it works for them here.

Be a leader that's prepared and empathetic during crisis

Things change on a nearly daily basis in the digital world. Because of this lightning-fast exchange of information, goods, and services, it's inevitable that things in your business, especially if it's a education technology company based on the web, will go sideways at some point.

A leader, founder, and manager many times over, Mike implores aspiring and burgeoning founders, operators, or entrepreneurs to think about two foundational things — and this goes for businesses of any kind:

  • “It's not optional to be thinking about what happens when things go sideways,” says Mike.  Crises within your business and organization are going to happen, and it's important to acknowledge that inevitability. “Whether it's something that you create or whether it's something outside of our control, global pandemic, the economy's going crazy, pick a crisis. They're all over the place.”
  • Think about crises and turmoil in business from a stakeholder perspective. “We tend to focus kind of inwardly when we're in the middle of a crisis and, as a leader, there are a whole bunch of people that work for us, our colleagues, our customers, our investors, our regulators, and other stakeholders. Think about leadership from a stakeholder-centric perspective rather than from a company-only or a leader-only perspective.” It boils down to learning empathy and understanding the impact a crisis has on everyone you work with or interact with.

WeAreNoCode Christian Peverelli is big on empathy and building it into the NoCode curriculum. Learn how he does that here.

Mirror successful models to scale for success

Here's the good news for scaling an online learning business: Learning in this capacity is now the norm rather than the exception. That means more people are online seeking out solutions and outcomes and the courses that help better their lives.

CorpU was, in many ways, a pioneer of online learning. Coding bootcamps were starting to emerge onto the scene and the school's digital education initiatives and trade schools had a place but little to no merit. Now, the merits of digital learning and course certifications are just as good (and oftentimes, better) than traditional education.

“These last couple of years have really opened people's eyes to what education technology company can do and how effective you can actually teach using technology. When CorpU was starting to build its early course catalog, most of the feedback we got from early customers was ‘You can't do this as well through technology as we can do it in the classroom or in a residential setting.' Our response was ‘Well, help us understand how you measured the impact of what you were doing in the classroom.'”

Spoiler alert: Sitting eight or more hours in a classroom isn't conducive to learning, either.

“Maybe give people an opportunity to learn on their own schedule at their own pace in small chunks at a time with mixed media and modes and a nice combination of asynchronous and synchronous work,” Mike shares. It seems normal to us now, but ten years ago this model of learning was unheard of.

Now, we're here — a decade later, fresh out of a pandemic world that made even those digitally non-native able to host Zoom meetings and order groceries through an app. The aforementioned model of breaking up topics and creating different styles of work and fostering discussion with peers around said topics is far better suited for today's learning audiences than a single “sage on the stage” lecturing for hours.

“I think the days of the non-interactive lecture are going away,” Mike says. “I think it's just so much easier to take concepts and break them down into small pieces and record them somehow, and give people a chance to get a sense of the concepts on their own time, asynchronously. Then you create synchronous experiences that that allow them an opportunity to practice what they're learning—try to experiment with it, to feel a little bit of the tension of this ambiguous situation, try to apply some of the things that they're learning; maybe they'll get it right, maybe partially right, maybe it'll fail miserably. I don't think people have enough of a chance in a typical program today to try stuff. They certainly don't have safe environments where they can fail, then learn from the failure, apply what they've learned, and move on, which is really what I think the future of classroom-based education is.”Mike shares.

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While your company education framework and foundation may not mirror CorpU or Mike's philosophies exactly, his belief that learning is learning, trying is learning, and failing is learning can be applied no matter what you teach and who you teach it to. For what it's worth, world-renowned leader, teacher, and founder Mike Barger has a few lessons worth learning from.

Hear from other great minds in learning, education, and business here.'

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