Is TED the New Harvard?

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.

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Comments (19)
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  • Helena says:

    I agree, and I am sure the speakers themselves would not want any one in the audience to believe that watching TED Talks is equivalent to fully engaging in a course of studies. And yes, I am also a fan of TED.

  • TWillingham says:

    I’m not only a TED fan, our nonprofit organization, Learning is for Everyone ( is a lead organizer of TEDxYouthTampaBay (, and I agree as well. While I imagine TED likes the attention and accolades, and is quite deserving of much of it, I’m sure they’d concur that the Talks are just a stepping stone to more indepth learning and knowledge acquisition.

    TED Talks are meant to inspire further action, whether it’s a move towards social change, or the action of continued discovery. In that regard, they’re an excellent tool for supplementing education and towards developing further knowledge on any number of subjects.

    As for the “edupunk” movement – it’s not just about lowering tuition and democratizing learning through technology, but equally about making learning a desireable end in itself. People who are encouraged to like learning, who want to know more about things and have access to a variety of tools for learning about them, help move us toward a society where being informed and educated is as equally celebrated as being an entertainment or sports celebrity. That would be real education reform.

  • Nicolas Diaz says:

    If somebody says that he attended Harvard just because he went to a couple of their talks, we all would call him a liar. You can’t even say that you have studied some author just because you watched him talking on the telly.

    Of course I like TED. But you can’t fight a shark just because you watched a lot of Shark Week.

  • I never claimed that watching TED talks=attending Harvard. If you read the article, I’m asking if *participating in* TED–and to a lesser but broader extent, TEDx–confers a lot of the benefits of attending Harvard, albeit in abbreviated (and much cheaper) form.

    That means talking about the ideas with the presenters, including asking questions; forming relationships with fellow TEDsters; and having TED on your resume, which can open all kinds of doors.

    In addition, I’m asking if there’s any way that Harvard and other universities can follow TED’s lead and open up to more people. When a Harvard lecture has been viewed 5 million + times on YouTube, this goal will be closer to being reached.

    It’s ironic because I just listed Openculture as an interesting aggregator of open educational resources on my blog. You are edupunks whether you like it or not!

  • Robert says:

    Whatever the value of electronic media certain disciplines like engineering are physical and “hands on” and require the traditional educational venues.

  • Dan Colman says:

    Hi Anya,

    So are you saying something like this? 99% of us won’t experience the Harvard-like benefits of TED. We’ll get to watch their 18 minute videos for free, and that’s basically it. (Not to minimize it.) But the real Harvard-like benefits happen at the TED conferences. That’s where you get to talk with the presenters, meet the fellow TEDsters, make the connections, etc.? And you get this by paying the $6000 entrance fee or by getting invited to speak? If that’s a fair summary of your comments above, then it sounds like we’re reaching this conclusion: TED may serve a small minority particularly well, kind of like Harvard does (except at Harvard you don’t have to be wealthy to get into the door). But, for the broader population, TED is not doing much more … or less … than it appears – providing engaging 18 minute videos. And, to that I then ask, is TED really that far ahead of Harvard and Yale? Heck, these schools are giving away complete courses online. We’re talking 25 hours of lectures per course. More and deeper! So who is leading? It’s not entirely clear.


    PS Thanks for listing us on your blog. Appreciate that, and I’ll accept the edupunk title with honor…

  • TWillingham says:

    Not just Harvard and Yale – – MIT is the real pioneer here. And there are many others:

    TED offers appetizers, a taste of the main course. It’s up to those who enjoy the sample to explore the rest!

  • Not to belabor the point but…
    TED has scholarship programs too.

    TED videos have far more uptake than open courseware from MIT or anywhere else–over 300 million views–not only because the content is more entertaining but because they pay very close attention technically and production wise to what works well on the web.

    And, with the TEDx program, TED has “released the platform” so that thousands of people, (over 600 events in the first year) , in countries around the world, are able to participate in something that’s often very very much like TED, and most of the time for free, or else for no more than $100. I would love to see Harvard, Yale, and MIT do that.

  • Dan Colman says:


    I agree that TED does a better job at production. There is no question about that. That’s where they really excel. And the universities can generally learn something from them. That said, I think the university lectures/courses aren’t exactly getting poor distribution. For example, Stanford lectures are getting 219,000 downloads/week on iTunes U and 114,000 views/week on YouTube. Multiply that by 52, and you get 17+ million views/downloads per year. Apply similar numbers to the other major players, and you’re dealing with a very big annual number. That’s pretty good for content that goes deep, isn’t always “sexy,” and requires an attention span.

    As for TEDx, I also agree that this is a promising model. Perhaps that’s one area where TED will offer an intellectual experience that is substantive and open. But even so, I would surmise that the TEDx experience is still pretty far away from what’s happening every day in the Harvard classroom. In short, no matter how you slice it, a conference isn’t going to teach you the skills you need to write for Fast Company, write a brief for a law firm, market a product intelligently, etc., etc…


  • Karen says:

    I consider to be more of a form of continuing education for people who already have a decent basic education. keeps me sharp, keeps me learning more about areas outside my professional field. I’ll never be able to afford a real TED or even a TedX — to me, IS a scholarship in and of itself!

  • Pete says:

    Nice thread. TED represents the new popular vision of education: rather than hard work and deep understanding, unsubstantiated pithy anecdotes constitute knowledge. Historically, science is a process, not a set of facts: science is where observation leads to hypothesis, hypothesis leads to experiment, experiment leads to data; the data is then analyzed to generate insight. In today’s schools and popular culture, science is presented as a set of facts that should be believed based on the credentials of the presenter. Faith is defined as reliance on a higher authority, and thus TED is a faith-based community.

    During my actual education, I mixed chemicals, diffracted lasers, decanted liquid helium, and built machines, all the while doing the same experiments on paper as in the lab. I know from my own efforts and own observation that matter is composed of molecules, light travels at a finite speed, and that a photon has both wave and particle properties.

    What we learn at real universities is a process: the process of ideation, challenge and confirmation that leads to new knowledge. TED is an uncritical presentation of opinion as fact.

  • TWillingham says:

    >TED is an uncritical presentation of opinion as fact.

    I don’t think that’s what TED is at all, and they certainly don’t claim that, nor do I believe most people who enjoy TED Talks believe that. The TED tag line, as a matter of fact, is simply “ideas worth sharing” – not “incomparable truths set before you”.

    If you look at the discussions that ensue on many of the TED Talks, it’s pretty clear few, if any of them, are accepted “uncritically”, or as unmitigated fact.

    TED Talks can be used to spur discussion, and to inspire a desire to learn more about something. Anyone using them as ends in themselves won’t get much beyond an interesting 18 minute talk or demo.

    I actually think the TEDx events hold more promise as an education-inspiring outreach tool. Unlike the big TEDs, they’re usually free to attend (ours is), and they draw on local speakers and resources.

    Connecting speakers and presenters at the local level – educators, people working on social justice projects, writers, artists, scientists and more – helps create more opportunities for those people to build new networks in the community that reach more people.

    To the original question – Is TED the new Harvard? I’d still say no. I don’t believe it’s an “education brand” but a good and increasingly more accessible platform for sharing ideas that have enormous potential for inspiring a desire to learn via a medium that reaches and engages a lot of people.

    Anytime people start talking about ideas, I think we’re making educational progress!

  • Karen Lewicki says:

    Education is going to change in the direction of web-presentations. It’s going to change to accommodate them, if not to rely on them, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    When the class I was taking in Organic Chemistry (with assigned homework, with everything mentioned) started proving useless, I began following online courses. I can thank the MIT opencourseware project and Dr. Hardinger at UCLA for my grasp of introductory organic chemistry.

    Likewise I have about 8 animations to thank for my understanding of basic processes in biology. They were just animations. I just watched them. They made G-coupled protein receptors explicit in a way that texts and vocal instruction didn’t, and weren’t going to.

    So, you say TED talks aren’t sufficiently course-like – how difficult would it be change that? One could curate them into series. One could ask speakers to give a short list of background reading associated with the talk. One could get the Fellows to moderate chat rooms serving as discussion sections, or offer some seats at the conferences to people moderating these rooms.

    It wouldn’t be difficult to give TED more formal education components. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, either, because we’re going to lose the system of education we have. To a large extent, the system presumed in many of these comments is lost already. There are far worse templates to rebuild from than TED.

  • Dan Colman says:

    Hi Karen,

    Yes, TED could do many things to produce a more rounded educational experience — something that would make the university analogy a little less of a stretch. But the reality remains that they aren’t doing it right now, and they haven’t indicated that they want to head in that direction. If they were to, I think their core videos would need to change. The current videos give you essentially the cliff notes version of deeper thought. To teach people something, the videos would need more depth (kind of like what the Teaching Company offers, or like what MIT offered to you). TED could do this, but it would require a shift in what they do, or ideally a new product line.

    Before closing, let me be careful not to lose one of my original points. I have no problem with what TED currently does. Their videos certainly have some educational value, and TED does a great job of straddling the line between thought and entertainment, which is how you get a mass audience and turn people onto good ideas. (Elsewhere, Anya described Open Culture as having a TED-like approach, and she’s definitely right about that.) So TED is fine by me. I’m just not ready to start comparing them to a university. The comparison just doesn’t seem apt right now. But I hope they are listening to your ideas and getting something out of this larger debate.


  • Mike says:

    TED is an inspiring and engaging enterprise, and there’s no doubt that any university should try to be those things. But TED is also extremely superficial, and promotes a feel-good mentality: the warm and fuzzy assumption that the ideas presented are wonderful and will make the world a better place. Thus TED not only fails to teach critical thinking — it is corrosive of critical thinking. I enjoy watching TED clips, just as I enjoy watching the Oscar ceremony. Let’s not confuse it with higher education.

  • Patrick Carver says:

    I think you’re on to something when you spoke about the quality expectations with new education models.

    It seems it will only work when all the great material that is out there can be put together in one place and supplemented with access to assignments + peer/teacher review.

    A new model of certification is in order.

  • I am a huge fan of TED talks, but considering it as a replacement of Harvard is premature, but at the same time dismissing the possibility of a better and cheaper online alternative to Harvard is being shortsighted.

    The current university model of education is highly inefficient and in-egalitarian.Universities in the short run will continue to be dominant not because it is the best possible way to impart knowledge, but because it has a Monopoly in certifying knowledge.(Giving Degrees).

    Having a degree from an elite University is so coveted in the Job Market because it gives out signal that the person is exclusive. How much he/she has learned at University is of secondary importance.

    Knowledge can be gained from other sources- online,reading books,watching lectures, discussions, project-work etc. But to be an alternative to University, the most critical innovation has to be made in certifying learning.If it can be certified with fair accuracy the learning achieved and that certification is accepted by the employers, the online university will become a better alternative to offline Universities.

    Possible Alternative: Peer Review/ Tribal Model

    Consider a tribal society, the best marksman is not certified by a certifying agency but by his peers who have watched the performance in the hunt/war. As societies grew larger it became infeasible to see how each one was performing, so we invented the degree providing institution.

    The present academic publishing works more like the tribal institution. A scholars manuscript is judged by his/her peers and that judgment is held to be fairly accurate the scholarly content of the paper.

    The Internet and associated technology has enabled us to transcend the problem of large size. A person can learn all she can from curated collections, online discussions etc. In the process of learning she will be expected to demonstrate the understanding of the concepts learned through applying it in the papers she writes, the projects she creates etc. These papers/Projects will be rated by the peer community, the ratings being weighted for the reputation of the “individual rating peer”.

    The proof of the pudding should be in the eating!
    So should the proof of learning!
    It should be in the outcomes of the learning.

  • If TED is the new Harvard, than Michael Senoff’s is the new free Wharton online school of business. His business interviews are twice as long as TEDs. They are tightly edited and presented in an grilling interview style like no other. They also offer free mp3 downloads and printable work for word transcripts. Oh, did I mention, it’s free?

  • damon says:

    While I find Pete’s skepticism to be overly cynical, I find myself agreeing that TED, and indeed any similar online course, is no replacement for a good college.

    It seems to me that the most impact and lasting learning comes from inspirational mentorship relationships, and I’m still wondering if any online course can really provide such a thing.

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