05/29/2013 05:36 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Should Universities Mimic Netflix and Encourage Binge Learning?

According to the Huffington Post (May 29, 2013), 10% of all viewers who watched any of Season 4 of Arrested Development binge watched all 15 episodes. I have to admit that while I was not one of these, I have binge watched past episodes of a show (Downton Abbey) prior to the new season.

The regular television season lasts 8 months. Roughly 18 hours of scheduled time is designated for just 450 minutes (7 ½ hours) of programming content for the typical 30 minute program. What is the goal of this design: maximize ad revenue? maximize consumer satisfaction? Or, is it just tradition? Judging from the recent Netflix experiment, perhaps the networks should rethink their seasons. [Note: USAToday and Bravo have been offering their popular shows in shorter seasons for several years, not that I watch Real Housewives of Anywhere, ahem].

As a Business School Dean, this has gotten me thinking, once again, about how individuals would prefer to "consume" education. Would students prefer to binge learn in a few days rather than attend live or online lectures of courses over an 8, 12, or 16 week semester? How many of us can claim that we never crammed for a final, "learning" all of a semester's work in a single weekend or pre-exam 48 hours? We used our inaccurate and rushed "notes", supplemented by the textbook, to review the lessons of the course. How much better would our performance on the exam have been if we could re-view the actual course lectures? Or, better yet, attend lectures for the first time when we are "ready" to learn? How much more would we have retained if we could repeat the classes, and not just reread the text?

As educators, we argue endlessly about the lengths of semesters, the frequency of class meetings, and the scheduling so as to enhance learning. In an exhaustive review of the literature, Mark Seamon argued that intensive semesters has been proven to be more effective in higher level learning than the more drawn out semester. This has been confirmed even in my own discipline:

"Using a database of over 45,000 observations from Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, we investigate the link between course length and student learning. We find that, after controlling for student demographics and other characteristics, intensive courses do result in higher grades than traditional 16 week semester length courses and that this benefit peaks at about 4 weeks. By looking at future performance we are also able to show that the higher grades reflect a real increase in knowledge and are not the result of a "lowering of the bar".

What about retention of the material? Its not clear that timing of the learning is nearly as important as application of tools over a career; however, there is evidence that learning something over long intervals is better for retention one year later:
According to Dr. William Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M and the "Memory Medic" of Psychology Today," longer intervals between learning sessions are more effective than shorter intervals. For example, one study of students learning foreign-language words found that recall was highest at 56-day intervals as opposed to 28-day or 14-day intervals. The total amount of study time was cut in half: 13 sessions spaced 56 days apart produced comparable recall as 26 sessions with a 14-day interval".These conclusions support the longer term design coupled with short class sessions, as we tend to see in traditional university settings. To further complicate the matter, it turns out that students believe they learn best when they cram, even when they don't:

"Across experiments, spacing was more effective than massing [cramming] for 90% of the participants, yet after the first study session, 72% of the participants believed that massing had been more effective than spacing".

In a series of surveys taken at my former institution, the market research indicates that the adult learner prefers shorter class session lengths (8 week sessions versus 12 or 16 week sessions). These findings came from an online learning population and are irrespective of the number of class sessions per week.

If optimal learning occurs in short semesters, and if the market prefers to "cram", then why not satisfy these preferences with program designs that permit binge learning. Traditional classrooms can make archived lectures available to students; and online classes will have to allow for some asynchronous learning to accommodate different scheduling preferences. It may be time for Universities to consider "On Demand" education.

A combination of technology (DVRs) and market service providers (Netflix, Hulu, On Demand) have transformed how and when and where we watch "television." I suspect that students want the same things. Technology and market forces appear to be reshaping how and when and where we learn. Perhaps we education providers should pay attention.