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.

by | Permalink | Comments (16) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (16)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.