Fast Company

Is TED the New Harvard? Reactions from Around the Web

My story has occasioned a healthy amount of reaction around the web, including from TED and Chris Anderson himself.

First, the snark: Maura at The Awl (a commentary site run by ex-Gawkers) calls the story "breathless" and TEDsters "smug". Most of the commentators admit that they enjoy watching TED talks anyway. I batted back with some snark of my own but also tried to answer what i took as her serious point, which was that TED seems just as elitist as the old-line institutions it's being compared with:

"I actually think we have similar concerns about elitism vs. openness. My contention is that many of the cool things that TED does spread more widely than the cool things that Harvard does, because of its attitude toward openness and its use of social media. Harvard has a crappy open courseware site–it's very difficult to find and view many Harvard lectures online. MIT has the best open courseware site, but even the most-watched video lectures have been watched a few hundred K times, while the most watched TED talks have been viewed over 6 million times. Lectures are admittedly a small percentage of the benefit offered by either TED or Harvard, but they're not nothing. The spread of the TEDx platform with over 600 events worldwide offers a way for ever-more people to participate, often for free, in a much closer approximation to the TED experience. I would love to see Harvard & Yale try something like that."

Open Culture , a cultural blog, took umbrage too: "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?"

I responded: "I never claimed that watching TED talks=attending Harvard. If you read the article closely, 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 single Harvard lecture has been viewed 5 million + times on YouTube, this goal will be closer to being reached. 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."

Reihan Salam (who is a friend of mine) at the National Review and Matt Yglesias  at the progressive blog Think Progress were less bothered by the piece's tone per se, and more taken with what it might say about the role of the modern elite university in the 21st century.

"The success of TED doesn’t mean that traditional elite institutions don’t have a place. But it provides a very constructive kind of competition," Salam wrote. "As TED’s “mindshare” expands, will will hopefully see more efforts like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, if only because elite schools don’t want to lose their relevance and their influence. Eventually, the mission of these schools, with their vast resources, will focus more on the wider public than on their own enrolled students, thus delivering more educational bang-for-the-buck. TED is, in a small but important way, teaching educators how to solve the problem of scalability."

Not surprisingly, I think this is spot-on. I want to reemphasize what I think TED's achieved with the TED talk. They've proved that there is a robust audience for semi-long form lectures on the web that pique people's interest in topics like robotics, demography, physics and public health. But don't ask me, ask the teachers of the Teaching With Ted wiki, an independent, self organized group of educators who use TED talks in their classrooms.

Yglesias argues that universities' turn toward greater openness won't happen automatically; we should direct philanthropy toward organizations that truly expand educational opportunity. I'm all for that. 

Finally, TED's Chris Anderson seems to be getting concerned that TED is being accused of overreaching. When the article came out, he Tweeted "Fast Company have just published a truly amazing feature on #TED. Wow. http://bit.ly/aNOsQH."

Today, he added, linking to Salam's and Yglesias's posts above, "For the record, we don't for 1 min think "TED is the new Harvard"! http://bit.ly/arU8Z1 Backlash! http://bit.ly/ciCJEV"

Duly noted. Those are Fast Company's words, not TED's. Everyone I've spoken to there has been far from smug or grandiose; more like awed and humbled by the power of what they've unleashed in the community of folks--a vast majority of whom are neither famous, nor rich, nor Westerners--who are proud to call themselves TEDsters. But I stand by the comparison, because I think it brings up interesting and provocative questions, and that's what we're here for. 

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