Notwithstanding the negative connotations bound up in the word “binge,” bingeing can be good. Compulsive overeating is a serious disorder, but we all binge to some extent when we celebrate Thanksgiving. Indeed, lavish feasts are a near-universal feature of human culture, and the value of their “binginess” far exceeds the value that we would get from an equal quantity of food evenly distributed over time. We are a bingeing species.
More evidence of this human trait is found in the new phenomenon of “binge viewing,” the watching of several episodes of a television serial in short succession. An article in the Huffington Post recently called binge viewing the new date night. It is an activity that has only become affordable since the invention of DVRs and Netflix, and since then it has been adopted with gusto. Virtually everyone I know has binged on a TV show.
Binge viewing is so common that it is now beginning to affect the production of television shows. Increasingly, shows are made for bingeing. They have more intricate plots and recapitulate fewer past plot points. Viewers give the shows their undivided attention, and writers and producers respond with better TV.
I thought of these facts this past weekend when I tried an online course for the first time. Because I wanted to brush up on my programming skills, I signed up for a Udacity computer science class on Friday. I was drawn in by the fact that there were no deadlines—I could put the class off if I got too busy for it. This concern was somewhat unwarranted, as I had finished half the class by Sunday evening. I realized that I had binged—on a class.
As with eating, bingeing on learning probably has some negative connotations for most people. It conjures memories of late-night college cram sessions, the goal of which were to retain information just long enough to pass an exam—and then, as with some disordered eaters—to purge it. But the kind of bingeing that people might like to do with online courses is entirely different. Most people who sign up for an online class at Udacity or Marginal Revolution University want to take the class for its own sake, not as a requirement for some broader credential. The point is not to learn and forget—it is to indulge an interest.
This seems like a more natural way to learn than traditional educational structures can offer: develop an interest and mercilessly indulge it until another interest supersedes it. It is a method that conserves the mental energy associated with willpower, leaving more of the brain’s resources to focus on the material itself. Since it relies on the student actually being interested in the class, it is hard to fit into a physical schooling environment, where classes have to begin on a schedule, go slow enough for everyone to keep up, and run in parallel with other classes.
Online education also saves the resources associated with context switching. Humans are notoriously bad multitaskers. Each time a high school student has to change classes, she has to quickly stifle the thoughts and questions raised in previous classes to focus on the current class. She has to expend mental resources remembering where the previous session of the current class left off. And when she returns to the class that stimulated the thoughts that had to be stifled, she may not recall them. Far better to focus on—or even to binge on—one subject until she is at a good stopping point.
Online ed skeptics tend to focus on the problem of credentialing associated with new entrants into the well established educational market. Although this is admittedly a difficulty, it is hard to see how markets could fail in the long run to supply a valued credential to those who learn substantially more effectively. And if skeptics doubt that bingeing on an online class is a more effective learning strategy, one might simply ask them if they have ever binged on an online course in which they had genuine interest.
Online education, if we do it right, could be like having an exceptionally well-rounded personal tutor who is willing to indulge any interest at any level of desired intensity. If I had had such a tutor as a child in lieu of formal schooling, I am confident I would have grown to love him—and I would have learned more rapidly. But to do online education right, we need to begin to perceive current educational modes as counterproductive, because they do not allow students to binge. Instead of trying to replicate existing classrooms online, we need to embrace online education’s unique strength—enabling students to let go and learn.