(crossposted from FastCompany.com)

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 “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. But I stand by the comparison, because I think it brings up interesting and provocative questions, and that’s what we’re here for.

2 Responses to “Is TED the New Harvard? Reactions from Around the Web”

  1. People seem irritated that your response wasn’t properly subdued (i.e., too breathless). Your real “problem” — as is true with other good people like Alfie Kohn — is that you truly understand that EDUCATION, LEARNING is the point, with how we get “there” a truly open possibility. The way you think is that if someone is educated, and you find out that this person got that way sans university but simply Goodwill Hunting-like through a library card, then you’re one to give the library full credence: “it” doesn’t first acknowledge the university (as) clear master before listing its strengths, but, through evidence, has proven it can stand fully equal to all. This isn’t what’s going on in other people’s minds, and to them it’s merely convenient that TED’s lectures are gratefully near-dismissably only 18 minutes long. What they’re thinking is that becoming educated is primarily about being educated, being acted upon, by someone else — being broken in. They dismiss TED for its apparent lack of interactivity, but what they hate about it is actually that it seems to privilege the individual’s right to be an active, choosing, fully-enabled “consumer” of education — what they see probably as its “fickleness.” In a way, to a certain extent, the web-browser becomes akin to empowered gentleman-amateur of the past who would attend a professional’s lectures, but never once feel his inferior: s/he has picked and chosen, sampled and savored, and became more worldly; the professional wallows in a technician’s expertise. People just now aren’t any longer allowed / permitted to think of themselves that way: the web has demonstrated that people are porn, not prodigies . Itunes U (to them) is better, because it’s potentially more arduous — it’s not so much about entertaining, about lecturers finding ways to please your credit-worthy sensibilities, but about you developing the discipline, the seriousness, to best engage with them: they’re reaching out, but the signal will not be received unless you’re able to listen (a talent best nurtured, of course, after serious engagement with a physical university). The “they” I’m talking about are moving away from the more Romantic estimation of people as flowering best away from institutions, toward understanding them as requiring the breaking-in that institutions can still yet enable. Names like “Harvard,” “Princeton,” “MIT” are summoned not to be matched or breezed-by, but because the overall cacophony and indulgent behavior is such that it REQUIRES the attention, the schooling-down, of long-experienced ‘wakening Kings.

    Interactivity is being mentioned a lot. I’m with Stanley Greenspan (note: he’s as good as Kohn) in thinking that back-and-forth conversation is so all. But as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing made clear when he established how the wrong sorts of conversations can lead to the like of schizophrenia, further involvement isn’t always to be preferred to standing back, aloof, and in charge. Personally, I don’t much trust that interactivity in universities isn’t now more about a way to feel more securely enmeshed behind walls that are keeping the rabble at bay. Not about responsiveness for growth, but about further relinquishing for security and safety.

  2. If TED’s the new Harvard, than Michael Senoff’s hardtofindseminars.com 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 word for word PDF transcripts. Oh, did I mention, it’s free?

Leave a Reply