Never Stop Learning

Why Education needs to do for learning what Netflix did for entertainment

House of Cards: A Netflix show that proved to be a massive hit
 
House of Cards: A Netflix show that proved to be a massive hit

By now, this is a story that has become inscribed as the moment that truly announced the arrival of online media: Netflix created House of Cards as a new season, but knew with a high degree of accuracy — well before launching the series — that it would be a massive hit. Their large user-base and comprehensive analytics system allowed them to see the direction towards which user tastes were moving. Gone were the times where monolithic studios had rough ‘personas’ of customers, for whom shows were pre-planned and delivered. If a show worked, it worked, and went on for multiple seasons. If it did not, the studio suffered losses and the director the ire of their financiers.

As a teacher, I cannot help but notice the eerie similarities between the working patterns of big studios and that of our current schooling system. Despite the fact that we have moved into the digital era, most of us continue to operate on hunch, with limited visibility on how students are responding to the learning that we are imparting. (Think of all the times you have struggled to stay awake during a never ending PowerPoint lecture). This does not mean teachers everywhere are failing — we have our own share of Steven Spielbergs and Christopher Nolans who happen to string together success after success in their classrooms by virtue of sheer talent and brilliance. But it does bring up the question of how we can replicate this success at a larger level, to make it common instead of it being an anomaly, in the service of everyday teachers and students who deserve the best education on offer.

Entertainment — and the Netflix example in particular — offers a compelling answer.

When Netflix set out to capture user data, one of the most prominent features was their use of tags. Every film, documentary and series episode was meticulously (and manually) tagged. The breadth of tagging became so vast that completely unheard of descriptions such as visually-striking nostalgic dramas or understated romantic road trip movies started to emerge. Using these tags and a gigantic collection of metadata such as when content was played and paused, what the age/location of users were, Netflix was able to build a fairly accurate user persona, and on top of that, a compelling and addictive recommendation system.

When Netflix set out to capture user data, one of the most prominent features was their use of tags. Every film, documentary and series episode was meticulously (and manually) tagged.

But Netflix did not stop at just the recommendation system. When they began creating Neflix Originals — a brave and costly move for an internet streaming service — they used their data once again to make reliable predictions on what the best bets were. Gone were the days of the ‘hunch’ in content design.

This has massive implications for education. As data and algorithms disrupt every industry around us, it is only a matter of time before they begin to disrupt learning for every student as well. For teachers, the ask is tough: how can we begin to incorporate tools in our classrooms that give us tangible, real time updates on how students are responding? More importantly, the student is no longer a passive recipient, but must become a tangible contributor in refining the teachers’ methods. We must not be satisfied with ‘monthly assessments’: our efforts to utilize data must dive into every minute and every hour of our teaching, so that remedies may be applied in time for students. There are already tools at our disposal that allow us to do this; Kahoot! is a great example, offering spreadsheets that breakdown every student’s performance while keeping students engaged. If the whole class is getting answers wrong, there’s something wrong with the teaching method. If a few students are struggling, how can tweaks be made to get their scores to rise too?

In Ed-Tech, the job is relatively easier, and less manual. For our app Taleemabad (bit.ly/taleemabad), we teach the national curriculum through a a series of engaging videos followed by gamified assessments. In doing so, we regularly receive the data of thousands of students who are using the platform to learn. Their usage data/meta-data is recorded to give us insights into where they are dropping off and where they are learning the most.

It is tags, however, that have the ability to make the largest difference. While retroactively reading data on student behavior allows to make notes on what works and what doesn’t, tags allow us to look ahead and see how student tastes are evolving. Tags give us visibility inside every minute of each episode — to see which characters were popular in teaching which subject, which color schemes and teaching formats had the most learning gains, which music and sound effects went well, and how often a topic had to be repeated for it to be learnt well.

Tags: Our way to feed an obsession with knowing every aspect of how our teaching is being received

Ultimately, when captured at scale, this data will help us evolve content/teaching from being solely an art form, to being a science form too — a crucial difference that will take away the element of hunches from teaching, leading to higher engagement times and better learning for our users.

Ultimately, when captured at scale, this data will help us evolve content/teaching from being solely an art form, to being a science form too — a crucial difference that will take away the element of hunches from teaching

But this does not only have implications for an ed-tech company. As education begins to compete with the myriad of distractions that capture the attention of our students, teachers must adapt accordingly. If we continue to insist on keeping education insular and unresponsive to student needs, it will not be long till we lose the ability to use the ‘push’ model to force our children into schools. Instead, we must — as entertainment and Netflix did — switch to a ‘pull’ model, where students are drawn to education because of their inherent interest, and because they see education evolving according to their needs/likes/wants.

If we continue to insist on keeping education insular and unresponsive to student needs, it will not be long till we lose the ability to use the ‘push’ model to force our children into schools.

Orthodoxy will argue that there are unsavory bits to education — the not so exciting parts which must be taken as a bitter pill by students because they would rather not study it otherwise. How else do you get someone to study linear equations? The answer to this is twofold:

First, we must as teachers find more interesting ways to present information. The time has gone where you can claim design inexperience to excuse a terrible looking slide deck. Tools like Canva have democratized design, allowing you to build better looking visuals, while animation tools such as Animaker allow you to build animation in minutes.

Second, we must not forget to tell our students how the topic applies to the real world. In the days of micro-work, and online skill learning, learners all across the world now favor just-in-time learning: the ability to learn a skill only when you have to apply it. Given this reality, we can no longer make someone sit through an endless lecture without telling them how they can finish the class and begin to apply what they’ve learnt to the problems and scenarios that they see around themselves. To put it into perspective, linear equations/algebra can have implications everywhere, from how swimming pools are drained to how self driving cars may function. You just need to pick which scenario your students are most likely to engage with.

To all the teachers reading this, all is not lost (yet). This is not a critique on the hard work that goes into teaching and all the good intentions that accompany it. Rather, it is a call from a dissatisfied ex-student, a current teacher and an entrepreneur to change fast, because good intentions will only get us this far. If we are to truly stay ahead of the curve, we must heed the call of changing times and not resist it, so that we gain the ability to build a better experience in the service of our students.

If you’re a teacher/student/parent who agrees/vehemently disagrees let’s connect on LinkedIn and build the future of education together!

Faisal Abdullah
Author: Faisal Abdullah

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