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The paradox of choice

Posted on: October 7, 2015

In this reflection, I draw a lesson from a Netflix strategy and apply it to blended and e-learning.

This Gizmodo interview of Netflix’s Chief Product Officer revealed that the reason why the company does not plan on offering an option to download videos for offline viewing is the paradox of choice.

Simply put, Netflix rationalized that when people are offered too many choices, they do not know what to do.

In this case, they are not referring to the variety of television shows and movies you can stream to watch because you rely on your preferences and Netflix’s algorithms.

Instead, Netflix seems to make the argument that it wants to make the answer of watch now (with a reliable Internet connection) or watch later (without an Internet connection) simple. It takes away the latter option so people have only one choice and change their behaviours based on that choice. That is why we now have binge watching.

There is still an element of choice in binge watching in that a consumer decides how much to watch over a given time instead of being held to traditional weekly television programming for example.

Wide variety of food by markb120, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  markb120 

How does this apply to providing choice when flipping a classroom, differentiating learning, or preparing e-resources?

No, it is not about creating binge learning opportunities.

It is the idea that more is not always better. Not only is creating more choices and resources more work for the teacher or media creator, it might also paralyze learners who do not know what to start with.

A teacher might offer just one resource, an article that is entirely text-based. This unlikely to reach all learners — not because of learning styles but because the text is boring and the format is irrelevant — so the teacher decides to create one or more videos. Now should the teacher also create audio-only resources, braille resources, and other alternatives? Can the teacher rely on just the videos?

There is a point of diminishing returns in terms of preparing a wide variety of resources, particularly under the misguided practice of applying learning styles.

Instead of focusing on choice and content, a teacher or instructional designer might start first with learning outcome(s) and context of use. The latter two are fundamental principles upon which a myriad of considerations should be factored in for teaching that leads to learning.

The problem of content and choice keeps resurfacing when because those in the instructional line forget:

  • to ask why a concept is important
  • that teaching does not always lead to learning
  • that lessons should lead to better thinking not better grades

So here is a choice you can make. You can continue to do things the same way because that does not rock the boat and it seems efficient. The paradox is that you will be constantly buffeted by change and you will struggle to keep things the same.

Alternatively, you can embrace the initial difficulty with change. Like jumping off a platform, the first step is the hardest. Then you hang on and start to enjoy the ride.

Glass Floor - Observation Deck of the Sh by _chrisUK, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  _chrisUK 

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