TED Talks: Online Ivy League?

An essay claiming that the TED talks are "the new Harvard" is gaining some traction from a lot of people who ought know better.

Anya Kamentz Fast Company essay “How TED Connects the Idea-Hungry Elite” (which is URL-titled “How TED Became the New Harvard“) is gaining some traction from a lot of people who ought know better.

What links us is our desire to learn; TEDsters feel part of a curious, engaged, enlightened, and tech-savvy tribe.

These two things — great ideas and the human connections they create — make TED a unique phenomenon. Other conferences, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and D: AllThingsDigital in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, have similar elite A-list rosters. But TED, which takes place annually in Long Beach, California, is the only one that fully exploits the power of what you might call, with apologies to Cisco, the human network. In the nine years since publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson bought TED, it has grown way beyond a mere conference. By combining the principles of “radical openness” and of “leveraging the power of ideas to change the world,” TED is in the process of creating something brand new. I would go so far as to argue that it’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?

If you did all that, well, you’d have TED.

Reihan Salam, who went to the Old Harvard,

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. 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.

Ezra Klein (UCLA), Brad DeLong (BA, MA, and PhD Harvard), and Andrew Sullivan (Harvard PhD) all link without comment.

The Awl‘s Maura Johnston (Northwestern) gets to the problem with Kamentz’ thesis when she snarks,

Maybe TED is like an elite college in a way — you apply for the right to pay money and hang out with a bunch of people who were also able to pay money (and a few people who got in on just smarts), and then the people who weren’t up to snuff can get just the “teaching” part of the equation.

Look, if I were setting up a university from scratch, I’d probably do it differently than the model that we have now.   I certainly wouldn’t have large lecture halls packed with hundreds of students with a disheveled TA  leading the way as the model for teaching freshman survey courses.  But, here’s the thing:  Neither would I get a bunch of smart people to show up and give random 10-minute lectures on whatever quirky idea came to mind.

While I’ve by no means consumed even a decent random sampling of them, I’ve watched quite a few of the TED talks.  I’ve even posted a handful of them here.   They’re frequently provocative.   And I could see incorporating something like them into university teaching.   Then again, I was using snippets of video in courses fifteen years ago; it’s hardly a novel concept.

But, while some of them are no doubt educational, watching videos isn’t an education.  Now, maybe you could hire some of the TED guys to teach courses.   Brilliant people who are accomplished in their field may well be qualified to teach college students.   A PhD isn’t a pedagogical degree, after all.  But, even if the TED folks could be persuaded to give up their lucrative careers for the relatively low salary of a college professor,  they’d have to be willing to put in the time it takes to develop courses, mentor students, and the like.   And, of course, it wouldn’t take long before they just became college professors.

And, while maybe we don’t need the current structural system of majors, minors, and core curricula, we need some kind of structure.   Higher education isn’t simply dabbling in some interesting discussions for a few years.    Students are supposed to come away with some amount of knowledge about a whole variety of topics, the ability to write, the ability to do basic research, and the like.   You’re not going to get any of that from watching videos about the advent of modern canned spaghetti sauce.

Further, I wonder how interesting the TED talks would be to the average 18-year-old?   Even to the average entering freshman at an Ivy League school?   My guess is that they’re mostly being watched by highly educated people, who have a foundation to be provoked into thinking about niche ideas after a few years of post-college living.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Heh. Fixed. But, yeah.

  2. JKB says:

    large lecture hells packed with hundreds of students

    Nice freudian slip.

  3. john personna says:

    I’m all for reinventing the University, and value TED as a brand and phenomenon, but I don’t really get TED as new University. The OpenCourseWare mentioned is a better match for that. TED is wide but shallow. It’s lectures are often great but stand alone.

    Heck, Khan Academy is a better example of educational evolution than TED. Though, if TED participants would structure themselves into a Khan-style Academy the possibilities would be boggling.

    (My guess is that the original authors need to revisit Khan Academy.)

  4. john personna says:

    BTW, if any of you east coasters want to drop on something that will, geek’s guarantee, be as big as TED in a few year’s time:


    (Perhaps not the conference specifically, but that sub-culture. It is probably a fairly large economic phenomenon even now, but seems to be the major possibility for break-out American innovation and manufacturing.)

  5. cinesimon says:

    Way to sell young people at the beginning of their academic lives well short.