What does ‘learning’ have to learn from Netflix?
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. Hence some reflections on Netflix.
Reflections on Netflix
According to the Head of Content, decision making at Netflix is 70% data, 30% human. That seems, in the long term, about right. At almost 100% human decision making, education and training is not improving fast enough. Everyone’s getting impatient at the lack of progress, compared to other areas of human endeavour – parents, teachers, policy makers, researchers, politicians. We seem to be forever stuck, ploughing the same furrows, especially the backwards push towards more traditional schooling. The answer to bad schooling is always more schooling.
Netflix, along with a couple of others, is reshaping the entire TV and movie industry by doing something that billions of customers want but the broadcast industry has taken decades to learn – like most things in life, people want to watch when they choose. Netflix outflanked both TV and the movie business by being more intimate, with less of a presenter-led, patronising or blockbuster attitude. It’s addictive because you’re in control and you have enough of a choice to fit your mood – movie, one episode, drama binge, comedy, documentary….. Timeshift, was the trick. Watch when you want. It’s no accident that they don’t go near news and sport – they are realtime events that break the spell.
Data drives delivery
Netflix famously outsourced their adaptive engine with a $1 million prize. It paid off in spades. It’s this subtle recommendation engine that makes it more than a library of stuff. It turns it into a living, breathing, personalised service. That’s exactly what learning delivery needs – a more personalised service, one that always knows what you as a learner need and delivers the right stuff at the right time. This has been a key feature of Google (essentially an algorithm service), Facebook (algorithm driven ads), Amazon (algorithm driven recommendation engine) and now Netflix. There is every reason to believe that this has efficacy in learning, where knowing what a learner knows, doesn’t know and needs to know next, is the key to delivering efficient learning. This is the Age of Algorithms. AI is the underpinning technology that will shape things for the next decade.
Data drives content
It comes as a shock to people when they learn that Netflix gathers data, not only on what’s popular, cross-referencing actors with genres and sub-genres, as well as scene analysis. Netflix knows what you don’t like, when people tend to lose interest and when they drop out. This data informs subsequent programme choices, even scene construction. Sarandos, Netflix Head of Content, describes House of Cards as “generated by algorithm”. They calculated that the demographic that loved political thrillers also loved Kevin Spacey. This is why they’re getting an edge on content – the new drama series about punk, disco and hiphop (The Get Down) is something no traditional TV network could do well. This insightful content production is the result of a careful understanding of their audience, not the locked-down, play it again Sam, costume drama behaviour of the BBC. In a fascinating statement, Sarandos describes Netflix as providing a new kind of viewing “more like reading a novel – some nights you read two pages and fall asleep and other nights you stay up all night to watch”. That’s exactly it.
Most of the time I watch Netflix on a big TV. To hell with all that tiny TV stuff – bigger is better for movies, drama, sport –you name it. But sometimes, when I’m abroad, I want to stream on an iPad or laptop (laptop has bigger screen and sits propped up but iPad smaller to carry). I may even stream from my iPhone and Chromecast to the hotel TV. I want it all. Listen up learning folks, we want it to work across the board.
Netflix is in 50 countries and will go into 200 within two years. We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love. MOOCs are getting there, showing what can be done but still far too long and over-scheduled (semester-long courses were never the real demand, just a feature of the old, supply model). We need subscriptions in the tens then hundreds of millions (Netflix has 57 million but growing exponentially). Education needs a Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Netflix. I’m tired of the corner-shop mentality, the attitude that teaching and learning has nothing ‘essential’ that can’t be scaled. We’ve come further than we think with Google (amazing search), Wikipedia (crowd-sourced knowledge-base with humble hyperlinks), YouTube (more analysis here) but we need to keep forging ahead.
Have I seen signs of this happening? Sure. The nearest service I’ve seen is Duolingo, which I've looked at in detail here, as it works on any device, is truly adaptive, personalised and sensitive to my needs as a language learner. More importantly, the very recent emergence of AI, namely adaptive, brains in the EdTech area, shows that this is coming. There’s some very smart people backed by smart money that will make this happen.