Curious: A lesson in addictive learning

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 2, 2013

From The News Desk

You know that feeling when you've started surfing the Internet, and one College Humor video leads to a Google search for undiscovered sea animals, which leads to a site where you stalk what time your Twitter followers go to sleep, and somehow before you know it it's 2 am and you're reading Wikipedia pages about how you could die from laughing too hard? You're exhausted, your arm is asleep from being propped up sideways on your bed with your iPad, and yet you just can't stop clicking onto the next link?

The Internet can be an addictive vortex of information nuggets, and education startup Curious is tapping into that. Curious started in May and launched its iPad app last week, joining the already crowded space of online teaching platforms like Khan Academy and Coursera. But Curious distinguished itself, and not just because it snagged the magical URL of Founder Justin Kitch wouldn't admit how much he paid for it, but he said it took five months to track down and haggle over purchasing.

The platform gives teachers a place to teach the sort of lessons you won't necessarily find in a college classroom. Instead, it's the weird, fun things you would learn by hunting through YouTube. Difference being, Curious staff curates the videos that appear on the site, making sure they meet quality audio/visual standards and are actually worth watching. Plus, the videos are organized in handy little themes so you can dive into whatever peaks your fancy.

I took a few "classes" -- introductory lessons are free, up to a point, and then "teachers" can charge -- and they're like a Wikihow of video. If you were in the mood to learn random skills and talents, you could dive into Curious for hours.

What Curious has mastered is making learning addictive. Most of the lessons range from 5-10 minutes, the perfect little bite-sized snacks for scrolling. Since they're short, well shot, and interesting, every time you finish one you feel like, "Well, I could do just one more. In five more minutes, perhaps I'll have mastered learning how to play Fur Elise on the piano or make my own bowtie." The name encapsulates it: Your curiosity gets piqued. What will I discover if I take just five more minutes and watch something?

"We feel like we're competing with Angry Birds," Kitch says. "We're trying to turn that phenomenon of short clips and short articles into something for good."

With its reward-seeking nature, Curious fits the trend of "gamification of learning." When you're playing a video game, each level is just enough of a challenge to make you want to conquer it, without being so challenging that you lose heart. Unlike MOOCs on Khan Academy and Coursera, which teach academic, broad concepts like Algebra and German, Curious offers up fun, weird things to master. "The secret to arranging rose bouquets" doesn't loom large like a mountain to tackle before you even begin.

I spent 30 minutes with a perky, bright-eyed mom who goes by the name of Missy. In five minutes, she revealed how the popular girls in high school get such bouncy Stepford Wife curls. It's an art form I always wondered about, assuming women with style are just born with the right hair for that sort of thing. I have wrangled my tresses with a curling iron thousands of times in my life without them ever looking like Lindsay Lohan's in "Mean Girls." But Missy's sneak peek made me realize I've been doing it all wrong -- clamping my curls with the iron and holding it in place instead of rolling the iron back and forth along the chunk of hair. The mysteries of the high school girl universe unveiled, seven years too late.

It reminded me of Michelle Phan's videos on Youtube, which are brief tutorials on different ways to do makeup ranging from Marilyn Monroe style to Barbie. Her videos were popular enough that she eventually got sponsored by Lancome and featured on YouTube's homepage.

But in order to find Phan on Youtube, I had to hunt through a bunch of amateur videos where the teachers either didn't do a good job of explaining their process, or didn't detail what makeup they used, or weren't particularly creative with what they were presenting.

That's Curious' value proposition, to find the good stuff for you and get you hooked. So many lost years of curling excellence. Sigh.