The “Just One More Episode” Effect and Learning

First of all, Happy Holidays.

There’s an interesting trend in media consumption that has come about with the advent of Netflix – binge watching. The term brings to mind colorful imagery of drug addiction, and some might argue that, to a certain extent, it’s sort of fitting. It’s firmly rooted in the culture now. Netflix bingeing. Watch an episode of a series, and if it’s crafted well, you’re ready to go on to the next one. The next thing you know, half a day is gone.

Or sometimes more:

When Netflix rolled out House of Cards in an innovative new approach where they dumped the whole season at once for streaming, their internal data indicated that at least some small number of viewers completed the season 13 hours after they started. Meaning they watched the whole thing in one continuous session.

When Breaking Bad finished last summer, Netflix and torrent sites saw huge traffic as people rushed to catch up so that they could share in the social experience. It was actually kind of interesting, sociologically, almost a return to what TV was like in simpler days when I was growing up in the 1980s.

Even my sexagenarian parents are getting into it. A few weeks ago, my folks got a new smart TV and decided to take out a Netflix trial. I suggested Mad Men as an interesting series to check out, since they came of age at about the time the series takes place. A couple of weeks ago I get a Skype message telling me they checked the first episode and liked it. Recently, I came home for a holiday visit, and this evening, they finished the fourth season.

What is it that makes us do this? What is the secret recipe?

And it works in other media too.

I was sitting with my daughter recently while she was reading to me. It was a longish book, it was getting late after a long day of holiday play, and reading in English (she is in French immersion) is still a work in progress, so she wasn’t going to finish the book that day.

She initially flipped forward a bit, and said, “I’ll read until here.” When she got there, though, she was still engrossed in the story, and said, “two more pages.” And then again, and again, a few more times, before the heavy eyelids made continuing too difficult.

I was reflecting about this, when a thought came to me. What if we could craft learning/training materials like that?

Each bite doesn’t have to be be big. In fact, shorter is good. It makes each piece less of an psychological investment. Easy to dive in for one more. But make it engaging, with each piece ending on an intriguing note, leaving you wanting more, like some weekly serial picture from the 1950s, but with that next episode not one week away, but right there in a link. It becomes easy to click “next,” and rationalize, “just one more episode.” “Just one more hit.”

We should look more carefully into how these programs we love to binge are constructed; what makes us just keep going.

And then try to apply that to instructional design.

Food for thought.

If anyone has any related food for thought, another dish to contribute to the potluck, feel free to share in the comments below. As a wise man once said, knowledge is the one thing that when we give it away, we gain it.