Online learning content: Taming the tyranny of choice


In a previous post, I examined the rising tyranny of choice in online learning content, and explored the ways in which this will pose challenges for learners trying to find the best content available. While technology can’t solve this problem entirely, it does offer some approaches that might make life easier for online learners.

The triumph of the (intelligent) default

Kevin Kelly, one of the original creators of Wired magazine, wrote a great piece a few years ago about default settings in software products and systems. One quote in particular captures the essence of his thinking:

[T]he privilege of establishing what value the default is set at is an act of power and influence. Defaults are a tool not only for individuals to tame choices, but for systems designers — those who set the presets — to steer the system.

  – Kevin Kelly, Triumph of the Default

If people become overwhelmed with the tyranny of choice, and often simply rely on the defaults, then it follows that many people facing online learning choices will pursue default options assuming they are available. As it stands right now, there are basically no defaults in the world of online learning; it’s all about choice. If default choices have lessened even within the walls of four-year colleges and universities, it’s only worse in the Wild West of MOOCs. Some MOOC providers only offer one course on any given subject (e.g., Udacity), which effectively becomes a default; other providers offer similar courses from multiple Universities (e.g., Coursera). Learners are left to decide (1) which MOOC provider should they use, and (2) which course to take on any given subject. It’s already a problem at the level of individual courses; it gets worse when one thinks about programs.

Any learner keen to hack together a program of online courses to meet a specific desired outcome is going to have to do it themselves. There are no default options as one would find in a traditional college or University; no one at Coursera or Udacity or edX is going to tell you what courses to take online if you want to be a game developer or a network engineer. There’s a gaping chasm between what these services offer and what many students and learners will likely need.

This chasm creates a great opportunity for learning content publishers and edtech software developers: find a way to present learners with "intelligent" defaults. One obvious solution to this challenge would be to match a given learner’s level of knowledge and mastery with the choices available. By looking at the pre-requisites for a given course, and comparing with a person’s level of mastery, it would be possible to identify candidate courses that would be a good match. Higher education institutions establish pre-requisites for precisely this purpose, and some of the MOOCs are following suit (although they’re not that rigorous about it). Regardless of the precise solution, it’s clear there’s room for innovation in smart defaults.

And then there is the potential to leverage the wisdom of crowds…

The wisdom of crowds

For hundreds of years people have spoken about the madness of crowds: how sometimes the pitchfork wielding mob burns down the castle, or how an economic bubble erupts around the sale of tulip bulbs and then bursts. Sometimes the collective does not behave wisely, even when individuals within that collective might make different decisions under other circumstances. Anyone who’s gotten caught up in the fervor of mob can speak to the truth of this madness. But there are certain circumstances when crowds can actually be smarter than individuals and act wisely.

In 2005, James Surowiecki published The Wisdom of crowds. He examined situations when it appears that collective can produce better results than individuals, but it requires a very specific set of circumstances. Wise crowds need:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence of members from one another
  3. Decentralization
  4. A good method for aggregating opinions

The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge.

As it turns out, the World Wide Web supports all of these conditions very well, which is why the rating systems on sites like Amazon and Yelp have become such useful and essential tools. It’s natural to think about extending the wisdom of crowds to online learning, and as you might expect, a few enterprising individuals have already started down this path (e.g., Coursetalk and Knollop). Assuming these services (or one like them) eventually gets enough traction and awareness, they will probably become useful systems to identify popular individual courses across providers.

One critical distinction exists when thinking about the Yelp model as applied to online learning: buying a burrito or picking a good Indian restaurant isn’t that same thing as choosing an online course. It’s a radically different time commitment and has much greater impact on a person’s life. And that’s just when thinking about courses. What about putting together a program of courses aimed at getting a job? Yelp or Amazon don’t help people string together decisions into a logical chain; decision-making about products and services doesn’t require any logical progression. Education very often does, which is where these models will need to evolve.

Choice is good…Managed choice can be better

The tyranny of choice in online learning content isn’t an entirely bad thing; it’s all about finding the balancing point between too much choice and too little. Hopefully, over time, things like smart defaults and leveraging the wisdom of crowds will ultimately cause the best online learning materials to float to the top. Once that happens, learners will be empowered with more effective online learning solutions matched to their needs, and programs that could rival college curricula. Until then, it will be a guessing game for people in search of the best content and for ways to "rebundle" materials to achieve their goals.