New Year’s Resolution: No More Excuses

Five college students looking at a computer monitor

What are you giving up for the New Year? What resolution are you making? Mine has everything to do with FoodTV and nothing to do with food…

When you travel as much as I do, the mystery and romance of travel isn’t as alluring as it once was. Last year I gave a dozen keynote addresses, not to mention conference workshops / seminars regarding transformative education, meaningful uses for neuroscience in any classroom, and creating a culture of learning innovation. So, when it came time for (what my family considers) the two biggest holidays of the year – Thanksgiving and Christmas – we stayed put.

But it gave me an opportunity to do something I rarely do anymore – watch TV. Particularly interesting to my wife and I is how our eight year old loves to watch DIY television. From house building or decorating shows to cooking shows, she loves recreating the competitive environments or replaying the backstory in our living room. And since my wife and I enjoy those shows too, we’re finally at a place where we can watch some decent TV as a family.

Anyway, that is the backstory behind my new year’s resolution this year. I actually had a, “What to my wondering eyes should appear…” moment while watching FoodTV. Please read on!

One of the execs from the network was talking about how they try to make food and story compelling to viewers. Through competition, conflict, and other devices, they take a show about putting things in a bowl and mixing it into something a viewer cares about. But I knew that. As an educator who teaches the power of narrative, I’ve discussed with students for years the importance of creating an “arc plot” for audiences. Whether for public speaking or in the classroom, the building of tension is crucial for both attention and focus. But I didn’t realize just how much until one of those FoodTV execs made the following statement. “Our research tells us that people only make what they see on one of our shows 1-2% of the time…”

Wait, what? Your educational TV station (which is the genre they fall under according to Nielson) provides instructional TV that teaches….well, 1-2% of your viewers? And yet, even though they are not the juggernaut they once were, ( article) they still get a significant enough market share to stay relevant.

But how? How is it possible that millions upon millions of people watch chefs – both professional and home-based – square off and make creative, interesting, mouth-watering food and yet nobody tries it themselves…ever? How can millions of people watch as houses are raised, rooms are reconstructed, and yards are turned into the coolest party spot on the block only to look out at their own (likely weak) yard and just yawn? (My father answered this question by explaining to me that all entertainment is watching someone else work, which is strangely and mostly true, but I think misses the mark for this question…)

The executives at these stations get it. They do. They know who they are and what they are, now they are just trying to keep themselves as relevant as possible (I hope you feel the irony in that statement as much as I do) to a viewing audience who hates commercials, thereby making it harder to come by advertising money.

That was what struck me. They get it. But does education?

I’ve grown up around and am even considered an expert by some in regard to eLearning. I’ve watched the transformation and evolution of the medium over time. I’ve seen the numbers skyrocket and then plateau with regard to online education. But as I think about it more and more, I’ve mostly heard a ton of excuses.

I recently attended a conference about learning analytics. More than 50 universities and colleges were present to talk about how they could use analytics to change the retention story, the enrollment game, and the learning cycle. (Ironically, one of my colleague’s take away comment to me was, “Wow, I didn’t realize how much we hold student’s hands…”) But while many practitioners are trying to find meaningful ways to use analytics on the front end – on the design end – most use it as sealant on the back end, trying desperately to prevent students from leaving or going somewhere else. (Or worse, nowhere else…) Because preventative medicine is so much harder than the treatment of symptoms…

Think about it. What have we heard from day 1 about online learning? The student has to be more motivated than a face to face student, who gets more hand holding. The student has to be more self-directed, since we cannot look over their shoulders. Online learners have to be better readers as the content is so text-centric. Students have to just be able to work through boring stuff to be a good online learner.

Is any of that true? Is there actually a need for different motivation between an online learner and a face to face learner? Does that even make sense with what we know about motivation from gurus like Pink or Dweck (who likely wrote the most important book on education in the past decade)? Do online students have to be more self-directed than a traditional student? Does DIY television use that as an excuse? If a person will watch 4 hours of TV about making cakes, never to make one themselves, food shows don’t seem to care. There is no “self-direction” issue there.

I also got a chance to catch up on some reading this holiday season. My favorite article wasn’t about Star Wars or wearable tech, it was about clickbait and just how easy it is to make someone click on it. You know, the stupid, annoying, revenue-generating, ‘headline’ type stories you see at the bottom of many articles these days. They employ racy pictures, crazy proclamations, and mostly plausible concepts while actually tapping into psychological strategies like Information-Gap theory, emotional arousal, and neurotransmitter regulation (like dopamine). Do the smarmy, often unethical creators of this kind of ad use the excuse of boredom, self-direction, or reading proficiency? Never. Even bloggers know that posts over two pages lose readership from readers who WANT to be there. But do they stop posting? They look at it as a challenge and beat that challenge.

Look, I know it’s not this black and white. I know we’re talking about content people want to experience vs content they are forced to experience. Plus, they aren’t being assessed on the information. (Although, perhaps more viewers would click in if everyone was expected to make a dish, leading to more reality TV opportunities…?) So, education starts off down a point. But I also start to wonder how much of that is chicken or egg? I know we have the historical baggage of education being boring, but we have seen pockets where it doesn’t have to be. There are amazing practitioners out there who can transform math into something of a puzzle that must be put together. We have examples like that for almost every discipline. So, does learning have to be boring?

In other words, I hope you’ll join me in my New Year’s Resolution this year. I’m done with excuses. Our design (for ALL learning, by the way) will start to employ more and more neuroscience like creating a brain cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins, thereby leveraging what clickbait marketers have abused for years. We plan to include the use of motivational / psychology strategies like gameful design where failure is fun, arc plots where conflict is driving, adaption where personalization is key, and much more. We will not design books-under-glass any longer, allowing our evolution of both bandwidth and knowledge rule the day as we create more and more experiences that are not solely dependent on reading. We will create learning experiences that are fun, motivating, and engaging at every turn. At this point in time, knowing what we know about learning, the brain, and design, anything else would be more than lazy, it would be irresponsible. That’s my resolution. Will you join me?

Good luck and good learning my friends. Happy New Year.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University


About the Author
Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Saint Leo University’s Chief Innovation Officer, is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while creating an incubator of innovation learning at SLU. Having continuously taught for 20 years as well as consulted, trained, and presented ways by which to transform education at scale, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, publishes in both Education and Communication periodicals, and has been asked to transform teaching and learning, at scale, for Saint Leo.  Jeff is also a regular contributor to the Teaching & Learning blog.

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