Curious launches free ‘lean-back’ online courses

by Larry Magid: is adding free learning channels to its collection of online courses, allowing potential customers to “lean back” and learn while encouraging viewers to sign-up for their paid “lean in” service.

The Menlo Park company, which was founded in 2012, has interactive courses on a variety of subjects — food preparation, guitar lessons and photo editing, for example — along with career-enhancing classes in marketing, management, computing, programming languages, electronics and more. Until this week, this service came at a price: A Netflix-style $8.99 per month or $60 per year subscription for all the learning you want from its library of 15,000 (and growing) classes.

But now there is a free offering called Curious TV. Curious has created a TV-style version of its 15,000 classes that you can watch for free on the web ( and on iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). It will also soon be available on TVs equipped with Roku streaming devices, and streaming other platforms are forthcoming.

Like old-fashioned TV

Unlike‘s paid service where everything is on-demand, is like old-fashioned TV — before the VCR and personal video recorder. The service currently offers 10 channels that air according to a schedule: Biz, Brainy, Code, Food, Health, Life, Music, Photo and Tech. When I tuned in Thursday morning, I noticed that shows on several channels were “now playing” and a few channels indicated when the next show would begin.

I caught the second half of a 22-minute organic gardening class. I missed the first half and, unlike a show I watch on my personal video recorder, I couldn’t backspace to the beginning. But, if I wanted to watch this or any of the videos on-demand plus take any of their classes, I could sign-up for a 7-day free subscription and then decide whether to continue as a paid subscriber. Even the free service has an “RSVP” feature to remind you via email (or a notification on an Apple Watch) when your program is ready to watch.

One of Curious TV's free online classes

One of Curious TV’s free online classes

Curious CEO Justin Kitch said watching an educational program when it’s on instead of on demand might seem like “a step backward,” but, “we have been thrilled to discover that it’s quite conducive to learning to lean back sometimes.”

In response to my question about how compares to broadcast and cable learning channels, Kitch placed the new offering “somewhere between the Discovery Channel and PBS in the sense of how the learning feels.” He characterized the new service as “taking the content we have and packaging it a way that can be found and discovered by people who then will learn forward eventually.”

Hoping for upgraders

Kitch is counting on some viewers of his free educational channels signing up for the paid service so that they can watch the programming on demand and — even more useful — take the full interactive courses with their structured video lessons, quizzes, assignments, attachments and access to help from instructors or fellow students.

I was skeptical when I first heard about this service, wondering how they could convert interactive lessons into educational TV for passive consumption, but I think they’ve pulled it off. Even subjects that aren’t all that interesting to me, like the program on “how to sew a high waist pencil skirt,” can still be interesting if you’re willing to venture beyond your comfort zone. But, when I did get bored with this class on a craft I have absolutely no intention of ever practicing, I moved on to another channel, just like when sampling TV shows.

Other learning companies

Curious is far from the only online learning company. There are lots of offerings, especially when you include all the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are offered by universities, usually for free. But unlike Curious, a MOOC is typically a video entry into a university lecture class. You rarely get a chance to truly interact with the instructor or your fellow students and there isn’t technology to break things into bite-size pieces and offer-up quizzes and other learning tools.

YouTube, which just turned ten, is probably the world’s biggest learning site, and I have used it to learn all sorts of things. It’s great for simple lessons like the video that taught me how to set the timer on my new hot water circulating pump, or perhaps a video on how to perform a particular exercise. But when it comes to mastering a body of knowledge, YouTube can be a bit eclectic and disorganized, and there are no quality controls.

Although very different from Curious, San Francisco-based Versal is another excellent online learning resource that offers sophisticated tools to enable course developers — including companies needing to teach people how to use their products — to create and publish their own online classes with dynamic content such as maps, data, images, audio, live formulas, flash cards, and incredibly rich interactive videos that give students the closest thing a computer gets to hands-on experiences such as showing what it’s like to look through and zoom the lens of a camera. If you visit the site ( click on “Learn” for some sample courses.

So, whether you’re ready to dive in and be a serious learner or just want to be a more educated coach potato, there are resources available to transform that screen you’re staring at from a “boob tube” to a brain tube.