Learning the Netflix way

I’ve just read the post by Donald Clark called ‘What does ‘learning’ have to learn from Netflix?’ which has resonated with much of my own thinking from recent work and discussions I’ve been having on Twitter.

I signed up for one of the free 1 month trials of Netflix when it was first available in the UK. I enjoyed it, then cancelled it. I’d got what I wanted. Then I realised I wanted access to the binge-watching phenomenons like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and the one that started them all, 24. But more than this, as Donald mentions in his post, I wanted access to the kind of programmes I like and at my convenience. I am not always available at 9PM every Thursday to watch the latest instalment of my favourite show(s), just like I don’t actually want to wait a full week for the next episode. I first watched 24 on DVD, not Sky, so I did binge-watch the show, usually 4 full episodes a night (or 1 DVD) and went to bed wired for the next marathon 24-fest.

So, if we’re changing our viewing habits, are we changing our learning habits (as pointed out by Donald)?

Yes. Consider Donald’s points: 

  • Timeshift. We want to watch what we want, when it’s convenient to us. In education MOOCs have enabled some of this to happen, but what is on offer is quite thin on the ground and only available at certain periods, which still mean we’re locked down to the information provider (note: not platform provider) to offer the course.
  • Delivery. If data is able to drive delivery of streaming video services like Netflix then why not use our knowledge of students and their learning habits to enable a system (or institution) to deliver fully flexible learning course (degrees, etc.) in a more flexible manner. Do they really have to start in September? With more students dropping out at 18 years old for a gap year, or more people taking distance learning degrees while they work, these courses could theoretically start any time.
  • Content. By being more flexible in delivery methods and start times, the content can be more flexible and more up to date. They could and should be more relevant, more in-depth, and more appropriate to the specific learning outcomes and learning journeys.
  • Multi-device. Like Donald I watch Netflix via various different modes, depending on where I am and who I’m with. The same goes for how I learn and interact online, whether it’s a formal course or MOOC. If this is what we do, then it stands to reason current students are also using their devices like this, not to mention what the next few cohorts of students will be doing. Flexibility to watch what we want, not just how, is key to the success of Netflix and other streaming services. The same will be true of the first truly flexible learning experiences students have.
  • Global. Back to the MOOCs again, but it’s a no-brainer that in times of global connectivity we live and work in, that we’re also learning globally too. Courses have to reflect not only the reach of the learning resources to a global audience, but also reflect the subtle (and not so subtle) differences a global community and the different cultures will and can bring to the learning experience.

For me the comparison between streaming video services like Netflix and education is too far apart to be relevant. But it wont be that way for long. Talk of making MOOCs ‘aligned’ and ‘meaningful’ for a participatory institution are all around us.

“Of course, young people are watching way less TV these days, TV is dying, and when they do watch stuff, it’s streamed, at a time that suits them. Education has to learn from this. I’m not saying that we need to replace all of our existing structures but moving towards understanding what the technology can deliver and what learners want (they shape each other) is worth investigation.” Donald Clark

We are very close to a cross-road where traditional learning institutions will need to make a choice, just like traditional broadcasters are now. The likes of the BBC have not only an immense back catalogue of programmes it could drop into it’s online iPlayer, and be in a position to run with the up-and-coming streaming video services, but it could also start developing high quality online/streaming first options. Other broadcasters may not have the opportunities of the BBC, just like  many universities may not be in a position to offer online courses in a more flexible or bite-sized chunks.

But those universities that take on board lessons being learned in other industries may just get ahead of the curve and be stronger in the market place? By breaking away from the boundaries set many years ago for the traditional 18 year-old-school-leaver, and offering more flexible and dynamic course options, learning and degree schemes could actually see a resurgence in interest?

I’ll let you make your own mind up about why I chose the image for this post … !

Image source: Dave Dugdale (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • A reply to James Clay on G+ where he asks of Donald’s original post “So is education akin to television?” I said:
    “If people get used to watching in this fashion, and it works, then why not learn like this too? If attention spans are changing then traditional times allocated to learning (1hr lectures, seminars, exams, etc.) will also need to change to meet learner needs?

  • Bite size, flexible and accessible are the keys. I do however believe that news value is important as well.. People should want to access the MOOC and start learning.. Not have to.
    That would be a paradigm shift in itself. Content with news value and relevance (heavy production task) could help achieving goals!

  • Peter Reed

    Hi David,
    thought provoking as always, but isn’t there a fundamental difference between netflix and education?
    The obvious one is that binge watching box sets is a passive activity, which undoubtedly sets it apart from the more active message that we convey in learning/teaching.
    Secondly, it’s entertainment. Whilst some think we might be moving towards ‘edutainment’ this isn’t across the board. Of course the best lecturers tend to be entertaining, but what’s to say this is best for learning? Entertaining doesn’t mean ‘active’…

    So what can we learn?
    Anytime / Anywhere access is already kind of happening, isn’t it? Do we want to release a full module at once so students can binge? Not sure – is this a radical constructivist approach? If we adopt social constructivist models then would we want the community to progress at the same time in order to discuss content?

    So I’m not sure what we can make of it, and of course Donald likes to throw stuff out there. I think we need to be careful of the hype around education is broken and services x, y, z are working, thus we need to be more like them.


    • As always Pete, thanks for this.

      I agree, we have to be careful about what we do and how we do it. We can’t have knee-jerk reactions to ‘education is broken’ statements, nor can we afford to stick with current (and I mean ‘current’ as in across-the-board learning materials, not the kind of stuff we’re doing, which is pushing boundaries) lecture, seminar, and readings.

      It seems to be accepted that our browsing and viewing habits have changed with faster Internet access, new social tools, and modified watching/listening habits. So, if this is where people choose to spend time away from a formal learning environment, are we to stick with ‘this is how you will learn, our way’ mentality or do we need to try and reach the learners in a way that they are comfortable with?

      I’m not saying, necessarily, that bite sized and binge-watching will work, but we can’t just ignore something like this new approach to TV (recorded lectures?) watching?

  • Ken Ross

    The key thing that Netflix does (which learning should) is to learn from the user and personalise the experience quickly. My Netflix is different to your Netflex, regardless of whether you’re in the next office or on the other side of the planet.

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