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Is more choice better for learning? Why the Netflix model doesn't work

By Adam Bai

“Just as no building lacks an architecture, so no choice lacks a context.”Richard H. Thaler, 2017 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics

Lots of learning technology companies claim that they’ll become ‘the Netflix of learning.’ But speculating about which learning start-up will, in fact, become Netflix is much less interesting than asking why the analogy is so appealing in the first place.

That is, if your goal is to become the Netflix of learning, what assumptions are you making about learning as an experience, as a strategic tool, and as a technical challenge?

Here are three worth questioning:

1. Learning is fundamentally an individual endeavor

The beauty of Netflix is that its recommendations are tailored to individual preferences. And, though we might watch a movie together with friends or family, the digital experience is configured for individual consumption.

But the most impactful learning experiences are typically the result of intense and structured interactions with groups of people, whether in classes, informally, or online. And within organizations, the social nature of learning is even more apparent.

Almost nothing we do in an enterprise is accomplished alone, and our effectiveness is determined by our ability to work, to grow, to achieve, and to learn in team settings. Learning experiences ought to reflect this reality, while still leaving room for individual and self-motivated skills development.

2. More choice in learning is inherently better than less choice

The promise of Netflix is the promise of choice: We watch what we want, when we want, with a beautiful UX and low transaction costs. But is more choice always a desirable goal? It may sound somewhat heretical, but an unlimited menu of options may not be helpful in a learning environment.

Decades of work in behavioral economics have exploded the fantasy of homo economicus, that mythical individual always capable of balancing the costs and benefits of any choice to maximize value. In fact, people are often confused and paralyzed by excessive choice, a reality even more true of decisions around complex goods like education and healthcare than around the question of which flavor of jam to buy at the grocery store

The challenge for enterprise learning providers is less to enable lots of choices and more to construct what Richard Thaler calls an ‘architecture of choice,’ designed to help learners make the right choices—from an organizational point of view. One of the tasks of an effective learning function is actually to limit choice by curating those learning experiences—whether social or individual—which help organizations achieve strategic goals through learning while simultaneously engaging learners and teaching them valued skills.

3. Learning content should aspire to entertainment content

Netflix spends billions of dollars per year developing and licensing world class content to entertain audiences. Alas, there is no equivalent universe of existing enterprise learning content. Providers who focus primarily on UX and the possibility of choice often skip over a more vital question: what content learners will be choosing between.

It’s true that there are thousands of great peer-to-peer Youtube tutorials out there on things like Photoshop or basic SEO skills, but there are few effective programs on leadership, digital transformation, or virtual collaboration waiting to be discovered and pulled into a Learning Experience Platform. And there’s a larger problem: there’s no good way to embed real social interaction, dynamic assessment, or meaningful analytics ex post facto within existing content. Finally, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the goal of learning is not primarily to entertain—and that sustained engagement is a lot different from fleeting entertainment.

So rather than searching for the Netflix of enterprise learning, perhaps we should all go back to the drawing board and think about better models to aspire to. And we should choose those models very deliberately and carefully, according to two standards: the quality of the learning experiences they inspire and their potential to help organizations accomplish their most urgent goals.

If you found this article intersting, check out our co-founder's podcast episode entitled Nobody needs a Netflix for Learning.

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