Last week Coursera announced an educational partnership with Discovery Communications  to offer Coursera MOOCs via their new web portal  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 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 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.


An amalgam of screenshots from education-centric websites — January 14, 2014.

There is certainly space for research and discussion of the digital layout of education in 2014; 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 nor its vision are unique in todays saturated marketplace of content branded as education.  What is unique about 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.

8 thoughts on “MOOCBusters

  1. Jon Becker

    I don’t want to be the defender of MOOCs and/or Discovery, but I think it’s important to distinguish the Discovery Channel from Discovery Education ( They’re of the same parent company (Discovery Communications), but DE has a long and reasonably well-respected foothold in the educational technology sector.

    That said, I look forward to the additional exploration of the formatting of these platforms (“freedom of choice through content boxes” ). It is an interesting phenomenon, indeed.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Hi Jon,

      Your comment about Discovery Education doesn’t seem germane to this post. is, like Discovery Education and TLC, is a holding of Discovery Communication, with separate administration but beholden at the end to the big company. There is no evident link between and Discovery Education. Moreover, Coursera did not highlight the important work happening at Discovery Education in their press release, but does go out of their way to align with the broadcast fare on Animal Planet and Discovery network.

      I know little about Discovery Education but I’m a big fan of your work and imagine your assessment is spot-on. But that’s not the discussion here. Looking into, their team consists of engineers, developers and operations specialists. Where are the educators? I am arguing that Coursera’s partnership is not about education and more about generating clicks and traffic. If the partnership was about education I hope they would have noted the work of Discovery Education, but considering the solutionistic worldview of the company that would be unlikely.

      If the partnership is about traffic and brand, Discovery Communications is a perfect match. They are a broadcast business first and foremost, not an education one. I mention TLC in my post because it is a prime example of the retrograde progress of the network in matters of education. Quality fare is replaced first with consumer-driven edutainment, later abandoning any edu premise in efforts for viewers. That’s fine for a broadcast business model, but based on the mission statement, talking points and keynotes coming out of Coursera, the models don’t match.

      1. Jon Becker

        I see now that I missed the Coursera blog post that does say, “…we’re pleased to announce that we’re working with Discovery Communications — whom you might recognize as the parent company of The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet — to offer our courses on their brand new destination for online learning.” It’s noteworthy that they specifically mention the two TV stations and NOT Discovery Education.

        I also note that in the Discovery Communications press release, they make the connection to Discovery Education quite explicit up front: (“Conceived, incubated and developed exclusively by Discovery, is the company’s latest investment in the education space, adding to current learning-focused assets that include Discovery Education, the global leader in standards-based digital content for K-12…”).

        What does that mean? Well, I think, once again, this is Coursera both displaying ignorance of the space they’re now occupying and trying to connect with something “popular” (DE is less well-known among laypeople, I’d say).

      2. Rolin Moe Post author

        Good points. If I were Discovery Communications I’d certainly play up existing education services and know-how. That’s smart practice. That Coursera focused on the pseudoscience offerings of Discovery Communications, coupled with the lack of education expertise at, makes the match questionable when critiquing Coursera.

  2. Pingback: MOOCBusters | Student learning |

  3. Pingback: MOOCBusters | cMOOC xMOOC review |

  4. Pingback: the Golden Age of Education that never was | Rolin Moe

  5. Pingback: the Golden Age of Education that never was | All MOOCs, All The Time

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s