The Key to Lifelong Learning? Netflix

Confucius depicted lifelong learning as necessary; something that enables us to realize and practice our true nature. According to Confucius, the latter is living happily in and between nature, society and ourselves. Today, lifelong learning is loosely defined as self-initiated education with a focus on personal development. Sound familiar? Lifelong learning is when you finish your degree in History and take up Chinese for fun. Or when your retired engineer Grandpa decides to enroll in a gardening course.

In 2020, we can access more information than ever before at the mere touch of a screen. From enrolling in online courses taught by world-class professors, to binge-learning calculus on Khan Academy, or even watching documentaries on Netflix. Amidst the chaos and calamity COVID-19 brought in its wake, some have utilized lockdown as an opportunity to jump on the lifelong learning bandwagon. Netflix, for example, saw 16 million new subscribers in the first three months of 2020. Its share price (NFLX) rose from 338 USD in mid-January, to 454 USD in mid-May

Why is it that prior to COVID-19, when we were free and able to leave our homes and socialize with our friends, we binge-watched Netflix? If lifelong learning leads to so many positive outcomes, why not binge-learn instead? The term “binge-watching” was used 15 times in Netflix press releases in 2017 and was initially encouraged by CEO Reed Hastings as an escape from reality. However, when the harmful effects of sleep deprivation and dented social lives emerged, the company shied away from the term.

Binge-watching is the same as binge-learning when we actively absorb content. Ideally, of course, that content must be “educational.” Sure, they may be educational in the sense that we learn something, but are they educational in the sense that we experience something enlightening? Reports indicate that 30 million people watched the reality show Love Is Blind, and a further 64 million binged on Tiger King, a documentary series about a tiger breeder in Oklahoma, USA who went to prison.

In a 2012 interview with Hastings and Khan Academy’s Salman Khan on the Future of Education, Hastings said, “the natural thing is to allow binge learning” and that “online is really the big lever we have in terms of global education … it’s fundamentally a global vision to provide kids with opportunity and to break down the industrial paradigms we have today.”

Netflix can fill the gap in knowledge left out by government educational bodies. In Britain, calls have been made to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum and in the USA, projects such as Teaching Tolerance provide educators with resources to teach about race, racism and police violence. Netflix documentaries such as Dear White People, Mubound, Who Killed Malcolm X, Moonlight, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and L1 92, to name just a few, could all initiate conversations – if not broadly educate people on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Not only this, but Netflix also has the potential to enhance foreign language learning. Particularly for those without the financial means to immerse themselves in a new language and culture, dramas and documentaries provide rich insight into a nation. The LLN for example is a Chrome Extension that displays subtitles in two languages and incorporates a pop-up dictionary; Language Learning with Netflix is a website dedicated to this.

Juntae Ko, a Korean student at the University of Cambridge, is doing his education master’s research on the relationship between language learning and Netflix. He said, “I sought to show how much vocabulary can be increased under two conditions: watching Netflix for fun and watching Netflix to learn. My findings indicated that overall, participants improved their vocabulary by watching Netflix. In addition, they also felt it helped improve other areas of second language acquisition such as listening, reading, speaking as well as cultural awareness and motivation.”

The question we really should be asking when we discuss lifelong learning is “what does it mean to be educated”? IQ traditionally defined is an antiquated idea, and many dimensions of intelligence are underappreciated and undervalued when it comes to a one-assessment-fits-all type education system. In reality, the brain is like a muscle; gamifying assessments and enhancing AI tutoring systems are just two ways to better assess learners for intelligence.

It is interesting to speculate as to the credentials of the future. Netflix is arguably far off from establishing “The University of Netflix” and has not expressed a desire to do so. Regardless, the educational value in Netflix is clear. Just as MOOCs such as Coursera, Codecademy and Duolingo have opened up world-class education to all, perhaps Netflix could pivot in the same direction.

This comes at a time in which many prospective university students are second-guessing the quality of education they may receive as university’s plan for the academic year 2020-21 go online. In the UK, the Officer for Students (OFS) announced on May 18 that students should be told before accepting their university offers in June whether the course will be taught online. Nevertheless, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review discussed whether the COVID-19 pandemic provided a much-needed disruption to the USA Higher Education market – particularly where access is concerned.

We live in a world where we can binge-teach ourselves calculus on Khan Academy, immerse ourselves in an all-encompassing Chinese speaking environment from the confines of our bedroom through Netflix, and even watch world-class debates via YouTube. Lifelong learning is key to keeping our skills aligned with the rapidly changing world around us – Netflix is just one way to jump on the binge-learning train.