Sparking Joy in Edutainment

Several years ago I published research on the relationship of Open Education Resources and edutainment, seeking to identify the trajectory of the free online content being provided on digital teaching platforms such as Khan Academy and Coursera. The edutainment of the 20th Century had not been adopted by formal education in the 21st Century, and third-party production of edutainment was undergoing its own metamorphosis. I applied a critical theory framework on the histories of edutainment as well as Open Education Resources to determine the validity, viability and future of the platform-based branded digital content that was being offered on MOOCs and other digital services.

While the research focused on the relationship of free-to-access branded digital content and the Open Education movement, one of the ‘further research’ threads was on the history of edutainment and societal assumptions of educational value. In short, the educational film operations of groups like Disney and Encyclopedia Brittanica was seen by executives and historians as a philanthropic apparatus (in part because these production companies had provided the United States government with technology and staffing for film production during World War II and that institutional memory and staffing then went toward education upon the end of war).  These titles were sold to schools and various levels of government, but educational film was not viewed as a profit-driven enterprise, it was a supplement of existing media organizations. The rise of cable television led to the creation of educational television networks i.e., The Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, at the same time as educational film was being phased out of operations. People could learn from televisions and schools could create their own contents at lower costs of production made possible by technological breakthroughs.

Neither happened.  Schools did not invest in producing contents; rather, schools cut back on the media resource services popular in the mid-to-late 20th Century leaving teachers responsible for finding quality contents. Television channels dedicated to education struggled to apply the lessons of educational film to a medium requiring regular commercial breaks and attention-grabbing hooks: people may like to learn, but learning is not easy and other television was easy.  By the time I wrote my research, the learning television networks of the late 20th Century were rebranded and providing reality television or curiosity television.

Both names are misnomers.  

Reality television is not at all real; it is the video capture of untrained camera talent influenced by high production efforts in an effort to manufacture content that will fortify preconceptions. The talent on reality TV pantomimes real so that the footage can be packaged and consumed as reality.

Some of the shows on TLC or Discovery or History are full-blown reality television series: Deadliest Catch, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, etc.  But these particular networks specialize in a variation on the reality theme: curiosity television. In the same way that reality TV is not real, curiosity television presents a facsimile of curiosity to be consumed rather than a starting point for greater engagement. The knowledge and information presented in shows like American Picker and Pawn Stars serves as a cohesive set piece to tie together the actions of the talent and their particular plot line in each episode.  Curiosity is piqued but then extinguished, substituting the pursuit of knowledge for the collection of trivium.

I am not entirely blaming these networks for these pivots; producing television is expensive, and a lack of viewers leads to a lack of revenue to produce the content (there’s a great Jon Hamm interview from TNYFest about the beginning of Mad Men where he notes the disparity between Season 1 when the advertisers were “boner pills and reverse mortgages” and Season 2 when they picked up Heineken and Mercedes). But the great promise of learning through television succumbed to the realities of capitalist consumption.  There are exceptions to this: TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything sees comedian Adam Conover break down conventional wisdom and societal presumptions on topics from Mount Rushmore to mattress sales, doing so by making research-backed arguments and presenting a case of evidence. For the most part, however, educational television exists in a space of what Film Studies and Comparative Literature Professor Oliver Gaycken has called decontextualized curiosity, where history and context for knowledge is replaced by metaphor and cultural allusion to amplify a dominant narrative.

This was the fear Walter Benjamin articulated in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but also the opportunity Michel Foucault wrote about in The Masked Philosopher:

“I dream of a new age of curiosity.  We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves at this task exist.  Why do we suffer? From too little: from channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient.”

The death of educational film coincided with a technological revolution, but the result was not a distributed network of learning environments creating high-quality artifacts building upon the rich history of educational media-making. Rather, we encountered a branding effort that substitutes the transformative aspects of education for an illusory experience that provides a surface feeling of having learned (see Talks, TED). Designing multimedia that would supplement learning environments proved much more difficult than educators imagined. It’s expensive to make movies and television, it takes a lot of people, and it takes a lot of know-how. And even if you could produce it, where could you recoup the costs?

Then I watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix, and it reminded me the possibilities and potential of educational television are alive and well. Here is a show that is not selling anything, is not focused on branding, is not using the KonMari method as a set piece to drive the human interest story, in fact it is doing the exact opposite.  There are no KonMari-branded shoeboxes for sale at Pottery Barn, no advertisements for bookkeeping professionals or paper shredders, and the households working through the method are evidence for what is possible as much as they are a human interest story. In 2019 television, a medium that has almost entirely been driven by advertising products for consumption, has its first cultural phenomenon in a show that explicitly extolls the values of less consumption.

Tidying Up is a contextualized curiosity, providing an opportunity for populations that accumulate a whole lot of stuff to be thoughtful about the preservation of some of that stuff and removal of other stuff.  The show does not explicitly tell people to start on the method and follow along; rather it acknowledges where people are in their struggles with accumulation, and provides stories of success in reigning that beast in while dropping in practical skills on folding fitted sheets, storing paper plates and selecting photos for photo albums. The feeling of overwhelming accumulation is common for many people today but somewhat new for historical societies; consumption growth after World War II did not change historical patterns of passing items down and reusing items as much as possible. The result is incongruence: we live in a society that pushes people to regularly make purchases but our cultural history is bound in holding onto things and getting as much out of them as we can.

The show takes from reality television: we follow a different household in each episode, and some of these households are building towards something in particular, paralleling reality television’s drive to episodic events as climax. There are common moments in each episode: Marie greets each home, there is a before/after reveal right out of HGTV, etc. This does not make the show a piece of reality television; rather, it is an assumptive signifier for an audience to accept and engage while being taken somewhere unique, in this case using the inspiration from seeing these stories alongside the practical lessons from Marie Kondo to begin decluttering their own lives.

It’s not an accident that this show is on Netflix, a platform driven by venture capital and subscription dollars rather than consumable advertising. There are other shows on Netflix that push at the boundaries of what is possible in television and education, using pieces of mid-century public broadcasting also unencumbered by advertising revenue (Julia Child, Bob Ross, Martin Yan, Lilias Folan) and incorporating stylistic and narrative structures that create show movement: The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell puts a macabre spin on Julia Child’s The French Chef and acknowledges that following along may best happen through McConnell’s online tutorials, and Explained uses a mix of stock footage, animations and interviews to dive into cultural and knowledge-based questions about topics relevant to our society. Here are shows that feature knowledge not as a facet of a subplot but as the purpose of the series.

There’s an argument to acknowledge about the public sector vs private investment, and how funding innovation in the educational media space has shifted dramatically over the past 50 years. The first great wave of innovation in the mid-20th Century was heavily subsidized by government funding for research and development across technological, social and educational channels.  The innovation wave of the 21st Century continues to benefit from government subsidy, but attitudes around innovation are that it is a pushback against governmental largesse. There are still bold explorations in what can be done through public television (I think of travel shows like Globe Trekker and the various Rick Steves productions, or children’s television like Odd Squad and Wild Kratts), but the decrease in government funding leaves upstart production experimentation to find outside investment to try something bold in this space.

The future of higher education is largely discussed in terms of the digital: online learning, online platforms, online open education resources, online networking, etc. A generation ago, research used telecommunications rather than online to discuss this new frontier because transmission was considered in terms of radio and television, and Internet technology was assumed to work as a supplement of these spaces. This generative approach to education (radio, then TV, then Internet) has geared the conversation towards the tech rather than the knowledge or the pedagogy, which is perhaps why our history of expensive tech toys grow stale quickly.  Educational media peaked in the mid-20th Century, when its contents were informative and evocative. Creating media today should not be reduced to capturing existing modes of information sharing. Tidying Up is an excellent example of how television can inform, entertain and inspire, and is unquestionably a 2019 television phenomenon. This makes it clear there is an opportunity to do a lot more of this and an audience waiting to engage with it.

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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