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TED Ed – Sharing the Spark of Curiosity

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As educators we are all familiar with the TED talks. These highly enlightening videos appear on the TED site and are immediately viewed and shared by tens of thousands of people around the world. Some of my personal favorites are Jane McGonigal’s Gaming can make a better world, and David McCandless’ The beauty of data visualization. These videos average about 18 minutes each and feature some of the world’s brightest minds explaining what they do and how that affects the world. In essence, they are short lectures on topics of general interest.

The TED videos even have some usefulness in the classroom, but they are generally too long or too sophisticated for children. Because of this (perceived) limitation, on March 12, 2012, TED curator Chris Anderson announced the development of a new platform for TED called TED Ed which will focus on curating shorter, school-age friendly videos for use in the classroom (Anderson, March 12, 2012). The purpose of this new endeavor is not to be, as Anderson writes, a grand solution to transform education, but rather as a vehicle to help exemplary teachers share their best lessons so that they can have a greater impact. From Anderson’s blog, here is why they think this new initiative is important:

  • Video is a powerful tool for education
  • Video allows for an easy sharing of lessons online
  • Video helps teachers show difficult concepts
  • Video allows for self-paced learning
  • Animation is an engaging medium for kids

I watched a few of the TED Ed videos on the YouTube channel that will house the videos until the new site goes live in April, and they were quite engaging. My favorite was, Why can’t we see evidence of alien life?

This video provides a nice, engaging overview of one of the big, unanswered questions that children sometimes have (adults too). The animation was very good, the narration engaging, and the content appropriately geared for a middle or high school audience. But in the Information Age, shouldn’t TED be aiming higher?

We Live in a Web 3.0 World
The caveat here is that we don’t know what features the full TED Ed site will have, so this critique may be a premature, but these are nothing more than well-done mini lecture videos. They are not interactive; don’t utilize social media beyond the YouTube basics, and don’t seem to align to any curricular standards. These are, essentially not "lessons" at all and don’t fulfill the promise of Web 2.0 or 3.0 media. In all fairness, these videos do what they seem to be intended to do:

"TED is known for its ability to evoke curiosity, wonder, and mind-shifting insight.  That should be our prime goal here. Short lessons that spark curiosity. That deliver memorable "aha" moments. That make learning thrilling. If we contribute just one iota to doing that, it would be a worthwhile project." (Anderson. 2012)

Anderson further states in his blog that they are not trying to "recreate what Salman Khan of the Khan Academy and others are doing so brilliantly, namely to meticulously build up entire curricula on video" (Anderson, 2012).  That is all well and good, but why not shoot for more? There is a near-infinite world of possibility for delivering rich online content. Frankly, back in the late 90s I worked for a site called the Inquiry Learning Forum, which did essentially the same thing as TED ED – plus. We filmed exemplary teachers conducting their best lessons, edited them and shared them online, but we also build an accompanying structure that allowed the teachers to share their actual lesson plans, samples of student work, linked to relevant state and national standards, and housed discussions about each virtual classroom. And that was more than ten years ago. It is hard to believe that an organization built on spreading the latest and greatest innovations that the world has to offer is jumping back 15 or 20 years to share (well done) video lectures.

Please Give Us More!
TED has built an enormous cache of intellectual firepower. The best and brightest aspire to be featured on TED – to have their message spread around the world in the blink of an eye. Offering this platform to educators is an outstanding idea, but it needs to push the envelope further.

In 2012 it is a shame to create something to be shared on the Internet without a thorough consideration of the full possibility that the medium offers. It certainly is more work to create a comprehensive presentation of relevant and useful information and tools to accompany each TED Ed video – I know, I did just that as a grad assistant for several years – but the medium begs for it.

At the very least, each TED Ed video should be accompanied by a list of related resources that teachers could use to take the lesson further. Ultimately, for this site to be more than an occasional source of interesting discussion starters for teachers, the full site must contain even more, and must elicit the full participation of teachers to fulfill its promise. Social sharing of the videos, commentary/discussions, and a Wiki-like structure to share and collaboratively develop lessons, resources, and samples that could be curated by the TED community so that they grow and evolve into full lessons with all the necessary support to be implemented by teachers. As it seems to be formulated right now, the site would just present videos to teachers and leave all of the legwork for creating an associated lesson to them. The Internet is the perfect vehicle to employ to make these videos the seeds around which full lessons could be grown. You cannot plant a seed, not cover it with soil, fail to give it fertilizer, water, or sunlight, and assume it will grow.

Regardless of what the final platform looks like, I am sure that TED Ed will be a success. The TED concept is too popular for this new effort to fail, but in order for it to be a long-term success that is truly useful to classroom teachers, it must be carefully cultivated and grown to maturity in the sunlight of Web 3.0.

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