A recent New York Times article talked about the new streaming entertainment channels created by Netflix and Hulu, and how their shows are designed specifically for binge-watching. The article describes watching a streaming series as akin to reading a book – "You receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule."
At some point during Netflix's "Sense8" — a gorgeous, ridiculous series about eight strangers scattered across the world who use a psychic connection to aid one another in fights and at one point have a virtual orgy — I had to ask myself: What am I watching?
I didn't mean that the way I usually do when reviewing a baffling show. I meant what, in a definitional sense, was this maximalist, supersized, latticework story? A mini-series? A megamovie? To put it another way: Is Netflix TV?
Binge watching or traditional television
Unlike their network counterparts, these media channels release their programs all at once and encourage viewers to watch an entire season in only a few sittings. Naturally, this has an impact on how the stories are created.
Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call "linear TV" — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.
In short, streaming entertainments channels are writing different kinds of stories for different kinds of watching. Specific changes to the traditional model include:
1) Changing the structure of the episode framework
Traditional television depends on advertising breaks in order to generate revenue. These breaks have become part of the formal story structure for all programming. Scripts are divided into sections that adjust to these breaks, and the result is that story momentum is usually disrupted. With streaming shows, the ad breaks are jettisoned and the stories run as fluid, uninterrupted narratives throughout each episode.
2) Creating greater connectedness between episodes
Streaming series are designed, from the outset, for binge-watching. Their creators understand the need to create explicit tie-ins and momentum between the end of one episode and the beginning of the next one. This allows viewers to treat these series more like "Dickens episodic novels."
3) Writing for a more sustained, immersive experience
Binge-watching is necessarily immersive and user-directed. It creates a "tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours."
4) Establishing a new relationship with the audience
Streaming series are designed on the premise that viewers are the owners of their time and that, because of today's user-controlled flexibility, viewing time is potentially abundant. "Streaming is like a vast multiplex where every screen is playing 'The Mahabharata.' It expects commitment – and gets it."
Could we design for binge-learning?
Not surprisingly, this made me think about how this new approach to entertainment might translate to the online learning universe. Could we design for binge-learning? Here are some initial thoughts:
Restructure lesson frameworks – Traditional online learning, often modeled after classroom instruction, is generally structured in the form of discrete segments and activities that are united by themes and concepts but lack any natural continuity or momentum between them. We can change this model by re-designing the lesson (episode) flow without the artificial stops (commercials). We can create lessons as fluid, integrated narratives that build learning (viewing) momentum rather than constantly interrupt it.
Introduce overall lesson connectedness – I believe the best teaching models feature strong storytelling at their core. This means integrating a connected narrative structure into our course design and establishing a cohesive flow between lessons.
Focus on an immersive experience – Immersion implies we want learners to become more involved in the learning experience. We want them to move beneath the shallow, information surface of our instructional narrative and explore the rich depths of content and concepts. I think a binge-watching design model might provide both the gravitational pull and clearer pathways for attracting learners beneath the surface of our courses.
Build a networked relationship with our audience – Binge-learning assumes learners are the center of their own connected networks that consist of other people and information sources. To be worthy of binge-learning, our online content must focus on these networks and be designed specifically for 1) increasing the number and intensity of existing connections within the learners' networks, and 2) connecting learners to new networks and new connections. This necessarily assumes a willingness to embrace organic, unscripted learning opportunities in our design.
Implementing the ideas
Obviously, creating courses that are worthy of binge-learning would – at least initially – put significant pressure on us as content designers and instructors. We are much more accustomed to the traditional model where content consists of self-contained information packets with learners operating in greater isolation. And the learning flow in the present format is deliberately throttled back.
This, in my opinion, is where the "art" comes into our work as learning designers. Learning "science" encourages us to treat content as discrete data packets that must reach their destination and be consumed in a purposeful, scaffolded order. Learning "art," however, allows us to design underlying narratives that 1) create connections between these packets, and 2) motivate learners toward greater personal exploration.
This restructuring could form the foundation for the emergence of personalized narratives that might potentially lead to a deeper and more enduring learning experience.