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Weekly Trend: Netflix-Style ‘Binge Learning’ May Revolutionize Online Education

Can you imagine a world where students binge watch lectures with the same level of enthusiasm that they have when catching up on the latest season of “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix?

“Impossible,” you might say. But don’t dismiss the idea so quickly, industry experts say. According to them, binge learning might just transform the future of online education.

“Online education has made great strides in the past few years, but most commentators have focused on the evolutionary changes afforded by the technology,” Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, wrote. “But in order to displace a dominant, subsidized incumbent education industry, online ed is going to have to offer a revolutionary advance.”

And for Dourado and many others in the industry, binge learning is that advance.

“This seems like a more natural way to learn than traditional educational structures can offer: develop an interest and mercilessly indulge it until another interest supersedes it,” Dourado said.  “Since it relies on the student actually being interested in the class, it is hard to fit into a physical schooling environment, where classes have to begin on a schedule, go slow enough for everyone to keep up, and run in parallel with other classes.”

But is binge learning something that interests students? Or, perhaps more importantly, is it something that will benefit their education? According to research, the answer is yes.

Susan Gilbert, Dean of the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University, asked that question in her op-ed,  “Should Universities Mimic Netflix and Encourage Binge Learning?”, and cited this study to back up her hunch:

“Using a database of over 45,000 observations from Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, we investigate the link between course length and student learning. We find that, after controlling for student demographics and other characteristics, intensive courses do result in higher grades than traditional 16 week semester length courses and that this benefit peaks at about 4 weeks.”

“If optimal learning occurs in short semesters, and if the market prefers to ‘cram’, then why not satisfy these preferences with program designs that permit binge learning?” Gilbert asked. “It may be time for universities to consider ‘On Demand’ education.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is another leader at the forefront of this conversation. He sees a space for startups to capitalize on an online education revolution.

“My first binge was calculus—I got to college, I hadn’t had much calculus, and the college I went to had a self-paced program . . . I loved it,” he said.  “It was tremendously engaging in the same way that binge entertainment is—you’re in control. The natural thing is to allow bing learning.”

Startups like Kahn Academy, Coursera and Aquent Gymnasium have already started to explore the possibilities of online binge learning through their e-learning platforms. Andrew Miller, project director at Aquent Gymnasium, said that the company has learned that students like to go at their own pace versus meeting concrete deadlines.

“We see them signing up in the morning, watching the first videos, posting their assignments every couple of hours and by the evening they’ve taken the final exam and they’re certified,” he said.

As more universities begin to explore the potential benefits of this new approach, ed startups have a unique opportunity to disrupt the current online education scene.

“Online education, if we do it right, could be like having an exceptionally well-rounded personal tutor who is willing to indulge any interest at any level of desired intensity,” Dourado said. “Instead of trying to replicate existing classrooms online, we need to embrace online education’s unique strength—enabling students to let go and learn.”

Katie Thompson

Katie is the editor of Shared Justice, an online journal for millennials published by the Center for Public Justice. A proud native of New Jersey, she now resides in Washington,…