Online learning content and the rising tyranny of choice


Online learning is experiencing what would appear to be its golden age (even though it’s been around for quite some time). Technologies have evolved to the point where it’s now possible to deliver engaging educational course content to hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously, in the context of an online "classroom" that supports questions, interactions, and exchange. In principle, all a student needs is Internet access, and the knowledge is there to grab. The technology platforms to deliver learning content in this way are becoming widely available, in many cases for free, which leads to an obvious conclusion: online learning content is going to explode. Anyone who wants to publish and has the means will.

This explosion in content will have a number of consequences, most of them outlined by Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus. The rise of online learning platforms is analogous to that of free blogging platforms, and the same consequences of post-Gutenberg economics will obtain:

  1. The freedom to publish online learning materials will diminish the average quality of all work published
  2. Experimentation in form will increase (which we are already seeing with different approaches to MOOCs, and the associated successes and spectacular failures)
  3. Definitions of quality become more variable
  4. Distinctions are drawn (and arguments break out) over the difference between “professional” learning content and “amateur” content, and where the dividing line is (if anywhere)

There’s one other very important consequence Shirky doesn’t discuss: when it gets easier to publish, that means more content, which means more choices for people when it comes to online learning. Unfortunately, freedom of choice can be a double-edged sword; learners who take advantage of online learning will increasingly face a tyranny of choices.

The tyranny of choice

In a world of limited options, life is easy. You look at the few options in front of you (because you can see all of them), you pick the one you like, and you move on. Not so in a world where Sephora sells 437 different lotions, or the Cheesecake Factory puts 240+ selections on their menu (not including specials). It’s even worse in the digital world, whether it’s the 800,000 apps to choose from on iTunes, or the countless web sites that seem to exist for anything you can imagine. In a world where there are too many things to choose from, people find it increasingly difficult to make decisions and are likely more unhappy as a result.

The American psychologist Barry Schwartz has been writing and speaking about this problem for many years, most notably in his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less:

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

  – Barry Schwatrz, The Paradox of Choice, 2004

Too much choice is a bad thing

Schwartz has identified a number of consequences when people face too much choice:

  • Increases the burden of gathering information to make a wise decision
  • Increases the likelihood that people will regret the decisions they make
  • Increases the likelihood that people will anticipate regretting the decision they make, with the result that they can’t make a decision at all
  • Increases the feeling of missed opportunities, as people encounter the attractive features of one option after another that they are rejecting
  • Increases expectations about how good the chosen option should be
  • Increases the chances that people will blame themselves when their choices fail to live up to expectations. After all, with so many options out there, there is really no excuse for a disappointing choice

Right around the time that Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice (2004), he wrote an essay about the tyranny of choice in higher education that highlighted the difficult choices students were already facing at that time:

But this freedom comes at a price. Now, students are required to make many choices about education that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and they are forced to make them at a point in their intellectual development when many students lack the wisdom to choose intelligently. In my own experience I see this manifested in several ways. Advisees ask me to approve course selections that have no rhyme or reason behind them and that the advisees themselves can’t justify. Students are eager to have double or triple majors, partly, I know, to pad their résumés, but also because they can’t figure out which discipline they really want to commit to. And I learned some time ago that “What are you doing when you graduate?” is not a friendly question to ask many college seniors.

In addition, students are faced with all this curricular choice while also trying to figure out what kinds of people they are going to be. Matters of ethnic, religious, and sexual identity are up for grabs. So are issues of romantic intimacy (to marry or not to marry; to have kids or not to have kids; to have kids early or to wait until careers are established). Students can live and work anywhere after they graduate, and in a wired world, they can work at any time, from any place. Of course it is true that students have always had to make these kinds of life decisions. College is an unsettled, and often unsettling, time. But in the past, in virtually each of these areas of life, there was a "default" option that was so powerful that many decisions didn’t feel like decisions, because alternatives to the default weren’t seriously considered. Nowadays, almost nothing is decided by default.

The result is a generation of students who use university counseling services and antidepressants in record numbers, and who provide places like Starbucks with the most highly educated minimum-wage work force in the world, as they bide their time hoping that the answer to the “what should I be when I grow up” question will eventually emerge. Choice overload is certainly not the only reason for the anxiety and uncertainty experienced by modern college students, but I believe it is an important one. I believe that by offering our students this much freedom of choice, we are doing them no favor. Indeed, I think that this obsession with choice constitutes an abdication of responsibility by university faculty members and administrators to provide college students with the guidance they badly need.

In the years to come, this tyranny of choice in learning content will only get worse, and it will apply to both college students and lifelong learners engaged in professional development. Learners of all ages and types will face a bewildering array of choices in online learning. In addition to an increased number of choices, there are less sources of reliable guidance to help navigate these choices; it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to be aware of the entire landscape to help learners in this process.

The landscape of online learning choices

Here’s a small cross-section of the choices online learners face today:

  • MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses are the latest to promise a revolution in online learning, and they are attracting a huge amount of attention. Everyone knows the key players (Coursera, Udacity, edX, Udemy), and there will only be more in the future. Online course content will overlap and will have wildly variable quality, and people will need to navigate these choices.
  • Open Courseware: MIT put all of their course content online and others have followed suit, with miscellaneous open courseware and open educational resources (OERs) available at little or no cost. While these resources are less interactive than MOOCs, and more suited to the autodidact, they represent another sea of choices.
  • Online colleges and universities: Companies like StraighterLine and University Now are offering online educational content as well, and more players will emerge in this space.
  • Online offerings from traditional colleges and universities: The existing network of higher education providers (e.g., land-grant universities) are rushing to adapt their offerings to meet new realities and demands. It’s clear they will start offering more online content, though exactly how it will be delivered and consumed remains murky.
  • Tutorial sites: Less focused on courses and more on granular tutorials, sites like the Khan Academy,, and TUTs+ offer learners a wide variety of choices in terms of online learning materials.

Unbundling amplifies choice

The granularity of new forms of online learning content is a key consideration; this is the unbundling of education, pulling apart educational content into chunks. In the past, students (and lifelong learners) typically picked (or were given) a program of study designed to achieve a desired outcome. This choice has been offloaded to learners with the new crop of online resources. Learning content now comes in the form of everything from 3-minute video tutorials on a very specific subject to 8-week online courses designed to impart deeper learning. Aside from a few online colleges and universities, no one is "re-bundling" online learning content in a way that’s tied to people’s broader goals. It’s a new level of choice people will need to navigate.

Stay tuned…there is hope

Ultimately, learners looking to leverage online learning resources are going to need a way to establish their goals and select the best materials that help them achieve those goals. It’s a daunting challenge, but a critical one that must be addressed. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Internet technologies and new types of online behaviors they support can help address these challenges. I’ll explore those opportunities in my next post in this series. Stay tuned and please let me know your thoughts!