This post first appeared on

Rolin Moe has followed up on my essay on the history of “The Learning Channel” with a fabulous post on “The Golden Age of Education That Never Was.” I’m grateful to Rolin for many of the resources that I used in my story, and I’m thankful too that he’s expanded on some of the ideas and offered further provocations.

Like Rolin, I am very interested in the connections – in form and content and, of course, ideology – between online educational content and some of the forms of media we have more traditionally believed were classroom-worthy – documentaries (most obviously) as well as “newer forms” like video games. I’m interested too in the ways in which the definition of “educational content” has changed over time – not because I have nostalgic longings for the “good old days” of filmstrips, nor solely because I see an encroachment of commercial interests into that very definition. I do think the technologies themselves have a role here: the rise of reality TV cannot be separated from increasing access to personal video recording technologies that have allowed us to, for example, submit our “funniest home videos” to TV networks as to YouTube. That has shaped what we think of as "documentary"; it has shaped, along with the Web, what we think of as authorship.

I’m four weeks into the edX MOOC “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.” I spend a lot of time chuckling as I work my way through the weekly videos and readings, in no small part because Kevin Carey hung his argument about the “end of college” on the purported high quality of an edX course. This one I’m currently taking – offered by the Smithsonian, I should note, not by MIT – is not a replacement for any college level course. Not by a long shot. It’s enjoyable enough, I suppose – you get a look at the Smithsonian’s comics collection, and there are lots of lengthy interviews with Stan Lee. (Stan Lee is the spitting image of my grandfather, and so I recognize that I have an amazingly high level of tolerance for the bullshit he spews.) The course is an homage to (mostly) Marvel Comics positioned in such a way as appeal to fans (confession: I spent the $150 for a verified certificate for this course because Stan Lee will sign it) and not so much to scholars or students. There is no critical analysis. Or very very little.

Lots of professors teach smart classes on comics and pop culture. Sorry, edX, this doesn’t seem to be one of them.

This MOOC is edutainment. And it’s branded edutainment, not simply because Stan Lee is featured throughout, but because it never gets outside the mainstream comics industry. It feels fearful to challenge the major industry brands – perhaps Stan Lee wouldn’t have participated? It feels fearful to push – perhaps because “open education” hasn’t figured out yet how it would deal with angry pop culture fans. It feels like a very comfortable story about the history of comics and their impact on pop culture – a story, dare I say, that would fit quite nicely on cable television.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives