Last week Coursera announced an educational partnership with Discovery Communications to offer Coursera MOOCs via their new web portal Curiosity.com. As noted in the press release, Discovery Communications is the parent company for both The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet:
We’re excited at the potential of Curiosity.com to expand our reach and give students an additional channel for exploring their professional and personal interests among Coursera’s offerings, as well as among those of other available educational resources.
The Curiosity.com platform looks like many of the video-based Internet education offerings of this modern day: Upworthy, TED, even MOOC provider Canvas. They really look the same. It’s as if WordPress has but one education design option and everyone is required to use it. From a design standpoint, learning in 2014 equates to a three-column desktop publishing layout, one click promising an equivalent to Neo’s kung fu lesson in The Matrix.
There is certainly space for research and discussion of the digital layout of education in 2014; Curiosity.com is just one of many start-ups to follow the dominant paradigm that seems beholden to building freedom of choice through content boxes. Stuart Hall would have a field day with why education is delivered in such a fashion. That is for another time, however.
Neither the design of Curiousity.com nor its vision are unique in todays saturated marketplace of content branded as education. What is unique about Curiosity.com is more its holding company, Discovery Communications, and their history in education. There are excellent essays about the relationship between the Discovery Channel and education all over the Internet (I suggest Wil Wheaton’s thoughts from last year), but a brief history: Discovery Communications began in the early 1980s, launching its first channel, Discovery, in 1985 with a slew of programs designed for education purposes. Its main rival at the time was The Learning Channel, a onetime fully-public (and in the 1980s a semi-public) television station whose programming was considered more academic than that of Discovery. The Learning Channel’s financial backers went bankrupt in the early 1990s and The Discovery Channel purchased the channel, rebranding it TLC. By 1994 the group had become Discovery Communications, and in the late 1990s into early 2000s the focus on educational programming had shifted to consumption-driven fare. Today, TLC is home of Toddlers & Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and Discovery Channel shows American Chopper, MythBusters, and Deadliest Catch. And while it is easy to poke fun at the (de?)evolution of these learning-based networks, these stations are often still considered places of learning expertise, despite their marketing-based production strategies, product rebranding, and reliance on pseudoscience. Names like Discovery and allusions to a former name The Learning Channel continue to support a notion that the TV shows on these channels come with an accredited validity, despite little empirical (or even a priori) evidence to support such a view. What does it say to the world of education when Coursera, a learning organization whose policies limit their partnership scope to a strident definition of elite, partners with a television corporation in the business of branding
edutainment simulacrum and pseudoscience as legitimate education? Coursera gets millions of eyeballs on its wares — a partnership with sensationalism masked as science adds nothing to its educative mission.
There is great work being done at Coursera. Three quick examples: Kevin Werbach’s Gamification (you can see him wrestle publicly with questions of pedagogy and theory on Twitter), e-Learning & Digital Cultures from the University of Edinburgh, and the MoMA MOOCs. All of these courses wrestle with the MOOC LMS in an effort to create an authentic learning experience and, in some cases, a learning environment (If they were MOOC students, these MOOCs would be examples of the hard-working individuals from developing countries who despite all odds joined the class and flourished). But the existing iteration of the MOOC LMS’ makes building a class with a mix of learning theories (not just a pile of cognitive style) an arduous if not daunting task (see the case of Coursera’s Fundamentals of Online Education MOOC, an auspicious endeavor in MOOCdom whose folly was systematic).
The MOOC phenomenon is still relatively new. But online education is not, despite the proclamations of many. And the missteps of MOOC developers only add fuel to the fire for those who wish to see the MOOC disappear, and further frustrate those who are sympathetic to the effort but bothered by the tone-deafness of the first iteration (and the lack of incorporating stakeholders with diverse educational backgrounds and theoretical lenses). Don’t say in the future there will only be 10 universities. Don’t proudly share a paper from 1972 as evidence of contemporary learning theory. Don’t trot out the developing world to promote your vision only to pivot business strategy to professional development, claiming democratizing education was never the plan (see Exhibit A). Don’t give the same keynote over and over again, and certainly don’t do it in front of a potentially hostile audience. And don’t promote your exclusivity while partnering with a business model that shoots for edutainment and ends up with claptrap.