How Netflix and Skill can transform higher education

What if algorithms were used to tailor a more personalised course for each student? Alison Watson proposes a Netflix of Learning

Alison Watson is the Head of the School of Leadership & Management at Arden University

In a society where we get things on demand and are lured in by clever, intuitive algorithms, we ponder whether our journey through education should be shaped the same way. If suggestions are made based on previous modules that students took and enjoyed, could we pave a way for graduates to get a tailored, more personalised qualification, based on their true interests and skills?

Should learning and development (L&D) teams begin tuning into the wonderful things astute algorithms can do? Just like when we finish a film on Netflix and we have three new suggestions thrown our way, indecisive students could benefit from having instant suggestions as to what they may want to try out in the next term.

Such a solution would help students get the education they need to fit their career plans and could future-proof their education.

Subscribe for three years in exchange for a degree

This generation is being built on-demand. We want things efficiently and with a click of a button. With all the smart technology that surrounds us, we have become somewhat spoilt in terms of being offered a “unique online experience”.

With our YouTube suggestions being personalised, and our Facebook ads specially targeted, we have entered an era where algorithms have streamlined many everyday processes, from shopping to watching TV. It is a powerful tool that many corporations have taken advantage of, one which the education sector should not shy from.

The education sector can potentially use what they know about their students to help tailor a course that better serves them.

Algorithmic suggestions are not merely about freeing up lecturer capacity and helping staff to deal with higher student numbers, moreso it is about providing equal access and a robust, consistent experience to students in an increasingly digital, globalised world where people could be studying for their degree remotely, often in different countries (perhaps even continents), and time zones.

This stretches further than the monthly subscriptions that online platforms offer. Platforms such as the retired Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning) and Skillshare have been done on many different levels and are often not the level of accreditation that companies are looking for. They also seem to throw anything at the person on the end of the screen, in hopes it will keep them subscribed for another month.

Universities could tailor a more personalised programme. Lecturers spend countless hours attempting to assess the skills or areas of improvement of their students when nifty EdTech can do that. There are countless tools, data platforms, and apps that constantly assess student’s skills and needs which can be relayed to the department heads to assess.

For example, many of the students we welcome at Arden University are already working. They know what they want out of their degree and the skills they wish to acquire but they may not know which particular modules will best meet those needs. An intuitive system that entwines what they enjoy and what they need may be perfect for them. It will leave them with the degree they want and the very specific skills they require.

Unlocking vaults to close the skill gap

A big issue we see once students graduate is that they don’t have all of the skills they need for their job. This often results in students searching for internships with little or no pay, or even taking a side step into a different career until they have the relevant skills. The Netflix model of learning could potentially solve this issue.

It can not only tune into a student’s goals (if they are asked about their preferred career post graduation), and match modules to meet these goals but it could also ensure they are taught the relevant skills throughout their three- or four-year degree.

We are approaching an era where many are looking to upskill. Before Covid-19, the CBI and McKinsey researched skills gaps over the next decade. Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030 as virtually every job will change – some incrementally, some radically. The report outlined that 26 million workers will require upskilling as their role evolves and five million workers will go through a more fundamental job change and require retraining.

Offering different vaults that students can unlock along the way is a good way to ensure they have all the skills they need after graduating. After all, many students are less aware of the skills they will need until they are working.

The Netflix and Skill approach can help with this. It will allow educational institutes to direct students to the modules which will meet the skills required by the jobs of the future. And by constantly reviewing the courses one student has undertaken, they can offer modules or classes that will complement their studies, unlocking the vault that best suits them.

Universities need the UX of on-demand streaming

Every student is different; their needs are different, and their interests are too. This ought to be reflected in the courses they study. If there is an abundance of choice when streaming movies, there should be an array of things to pick from when beginning your journey into higher education.

Intuitive algorithms can better prepare students than generalised courses do, by going further than offering a digital library with the latest journals. It can soak up what students are reading and interested in and make further suggestions on what to watch or read, to make sure they are more than equipped for life outside of education.

The Netflix of learning may be far fetched for now and there are criticisms we can list out with this model. Learning platforms will have to operate their recommendation engines on fundamentally different data to Netflix, which has 209 million subscribers and can easily track the habits of their users, making it fundamentally easier for their suggestions to be that little more accurate.

With 92 per cent of teachers believing tech will have a major impact on the way they educate in the near future, the past year has certainly taught some universities that they are way behind. What universities should now be looking to implement is a simple platform that is easy to navigate, 24/7 on a wide selection of devices. It should take into account the student’s needs and do the thinking for them.

The pandemic has thrown people into a vortex and thrown them into a different world – a world where lectures take place in our bedrooms and exams are taken online.

It has pushed institutions to embrace tech like never before, so we mustn’t let a few cynics prevent L&D teams from reimagining what studying could be like. Instead, we need to consider how EdTech has the potential to help us push boundaries and evolve the student experience.

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