A house of cards? – Netflix as a model for elearning

With so much discussion about scaling up online learning, do we risk losing site of how technology can help us at the small scale as well?

I subscribed to Netflix a few weeks ago so I could finally watch the US version of House of Cards (enjoying it, btw) so I read Donald Clark’s recent post on “what does learning have to learn from Netflix” with some interest.

Donald paints a picture of a learning landscape that I just can’t get excited about. He says:

“We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love.”

So much of the debate about elearning revolves around the question “will it scale?” but I want to resist the idea that this is how we do elearning now. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

It’s a question of experience. Technology allows us to do really interesting and exciting things with learning but what works for a group of a dozen won’t always work for a group of thousands.

The tyranny of the algorithm

One of the reasons that we need algorithms to curate learning experiences is if we want large scale in our online learning programmes.  The job is just too big if you have 150,000 individuals taking a course or are subscribed to your platform.

I’m just not that impressed by the ability of algorithms to shape my online experience, at least at the moment. The complicated, messy reality of any online interaction has to be reduced to something very simplistic in order to make it computable.

I reflected on this last year when Facebook presented me with a robot-compiled video of my life called Look Back that felt like the story of a stranger!

I’ve given Netflix a lot of clues as to my preferences by the things I watch and the quite sizeable favourites list I’ve created but of the things it recommends for me I’m interested in a very small proportion. It’s not a good hit rate and it would be interesting to compare it against a list of randomly selected titles.

If that’s the adaptive engine that $1million dollars buys you I don’t think it’s great value for money. Sure, it’s early days in my use of Netflix but it’s a pattern I see repeated in my experiences of Facebook, Amazon, Spotify and so on.

Learning as a collective endeavour

The masters I completed in 2013 was an online course but was very small scale, fewer than a dozen people in my cohort but it was a powerful, transformative experience for me.

What I responded to and kept me motivated and learning throughout was that fact that the model of curriculum design was collaborative. There were many opportunities for us to shape how the course was run as it was run. It was scarey, sometimes messy but ultimately very empowering. Technology helped us to do this with a group spread over the whole of the UK and beyond.

Also, one of the things I valued most was my relationship with the course tutors like Guy Merchant and Richard Pountney. There was something really exciting about the potential that not only could they change my mind about how I thought, the potential was there for me to do the same to them.

Online learning at scale, especially if it feels like a Netflix experience, is going to find it really difficult to accommodate that sort of thing. It only works if what you are concerned about is delivery of content and that’s only a part of what learning is about.

“Learners who studied this might also like…”

I was intrigued that House of Cards’ casting was shaped partially by the data on audience preferences.

If a+b+c=ratingssuccess, that doesn’t leave much room for surprises or creativity. It’s a way of baking existing preferences into the system, making it harder for new talents and voices to emerge. We hardly have a perfect system for nurturing new talent at the moment

I don’t necessarily know what I want when it comes to learning either. I want to be surprised as much as I want to find out stuff that is useful.

“Will it scale?”

The answers to education’s problems can’t be found purely in the economies of scale.

Technology gives us a great management tool when dealing with massive scale courses but I worry that we then compromise on the learner experience.

We should be as interested in what technology helps us to do at the small scale as well as the massive.

Image: Minihouseofcards.jpg by Arealast CC-BY-SA 3.0

1 reply on “A house of cards? – Netflix as a model for elearning”

Hmmm, I tend to concur with your premise as far as education itself goes, but there are real problems on the finance side of things when one goes small.

Currently adjuncts make up 70%+ of the higher ed profession, and 25% of said adjuncts are on public assistance. If we continue on the path we are on, those numbers are just going to go up and up and up… sooner or later, the advantages of small group instruction will go by the wayside. I don’t care how dedicated an adjunct is, if they need to hold multiple jobs to eat, student access is going to be impaired… and the same can be said with regards to declining diversity of views as well as research.

Scaling is complex, but trying to hold on to a gilded past that society won’t support will force the issue, unless alternative paths can be worked out ahead of time. Its a similar problem in the world of classical music, albeit they are much deeper in the fray. Canaries were dieing in the coalmine a couple decades ago, but far too many orgs didn’t hear and are now paying the piper.

I’m not sure what the answer is, other than folks ought to be trying anything and everything, both big and small before we get to the same points classical music has run into.

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