Next month's edition of Fast Company (available online now) brings you a big, glowing tribute to TED and its TED Talks. It's a lovefest in print, the kind that sells magazines. And, along the way, Anya Kamenetz (author of DIY U) makes some big claims for TED. Let me start with this one:
I would go so far as to argue that [TED's] creating a new Harvard -- the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.
Of course TED doesn't look like a regular Ivy League college. It doesn't have any buildings; it doesn't grant degrees. It doesn't have singing groups or secret societies, and as far as I know it hasn't inspired any strange drinking games.
Still, if you were starting a top university today, what would it look like? You would start by gathering the very best minds from around the world, from every discipline. Since we're living in an age of abundant, not scarce, information, you'd curate the lectures carefully, with a focus on the new and original, rather than offer a course on every possible topic. You'd create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You'd also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you'd give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university's millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?
TED, the new Harvard. The new university. It's a nice idea ... until you think about it for a few moments. Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert's knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all? (Will they assign the papers where you grapple with the difficult ideas? Will they make sure your arguments are sound? That your writing is lucid? Or will they even expand on their brief lectures and teach you something in-depth?) Nope, you'll get none of that. The experts will give their 18 minute talks, and then they're gone. Ultimately, Kamenetz seems to know she's overreaching. She eventually circles around to say, "Sure, these talks have their limits as an educational medium. An 18-minute presentation, no matter how expert, can't accommodate anything overly theoretical or technical -- the format is more congenial to Freakonomics than economics." And so the whole initial, catchy premise falls apart. (Maura Johnston rightly makes this point too, among other good ones, in her must-read reaction to the "breathless" Fast Company article.)
I have no beef with TED. Quite the contrary, I'm a big fan of their open lectures. (Get the full list here.) And you can't blame TED when others read too much into what they do. But, echoing points made last week, I do have an issue with commentators reducing education to watching TV. So a quick request to the "edupunks" and "edupreneurs" out there. As you're democratizing education and lowering tuition through technology, could you make sure that whatever you're finally offering is an education in more than mere name? You feel me?
NOTE: Anya Kamenetz, the author of the Fast Company article, offers a response in the comments below. In fairness to her, please give them a read. We also have a little follow up.