Friday, February 08, 2013

The End of Ted Talks and MOOCs

During the last year or two, I have seen more and more signs of a growing dislike for the TED talks. There are articles, blogposts, and comics that in different ways display one or another aspect of TED talks that people seem to see as problematic. Here is a typical example.

It is interesting how something that just a short time ago was by many considered to be the highest form of achievement, to give a TED talk, now by many is viewed as a form of knowledge diffusion that is almost detrimental to its very purpose, that is, to spreading real and serious knowledge in an efficient and entertaining way.

As in the example, the critique of TED talks seem to raise issues about the selection of speakers, quality of format, the slick presentation style, etc. But the most serious critique seems to be that TED actually do a disservice to the research and intellectual communities in that is makes every problem and solution, every grand idea or philosophy into a entertaining "wow" experience where the level of "wow" have no correspondance to the significance level of the content and message.

Anyway, the reason for this post is not to critique TED Talks per se. Instead my point is that the example of TED Talks is something to consider in this era of MOOC hype (massive open online courses). MOOCs are seen as the new form of delivery of knowledge, in particular academic knowledge. There is an intense search for the format of MOOCs that will be the silver bullet when it comes to higher education.

The lesson from TED Talks is that even if a format is found that works wonderfully as a delivery system for knowledge and millions of students are drawn to the new format and may also succeed, this does not mean that the format will survive the test of time. Traditional education, face to face, in "boring" classrooms with a boring "format" seems however to pass that test. The format has worked (of course far from perfect) for a long time.

So, if the wonder format of TED Talks is starting to fade and experiencing a growing critique and fatigue among its supporters, that is a pretty strong warning to anyone claiming that they have found the next format for knowledge delivery.

1 comment:

Kevin Makice said...

TED talks are an excellent way to get exposure to polished concepts and interesting people. Their ease of passing around information in that form is an excellent use of the affordances of the Internet in general and social media in particular. I think the critiques based on the content or form of delivery are incorrectly believing that access to knowledge to be a zero-sum—as in, if they see it in a TED talk they won't pay attention to the deeper and more rigorous work that is being done behind it. In fact, my experience is exactly the opposite: a 5-20 minute investment in my time can lead to entire bodies of work that I would not have found otherwise. The fact that there a many non-academics up on those stages is also a plus, as some of the projects being done in the name of art or science but without academic institution are just as inspiring and valid as a long journal paper.

My gripe with TED is the elitism and exclusive nature of the process of getting those talks into cyberspace. The cost to go to "Big TED" is prohibitive, and people invited to speak tend to already be those who are established or well known in their circles. As Bar camps were to FOO Camps in tech, there are responses to this exclusivity in the form of Ignite talks, Pecha Kucha and other local gatherings of people who volunteer to share their interests. Even TEDx, which was supposed to tap into that localized love of sharing knowledge, is a highly controlling organization that has far too many rules of engagement about what can and cannot be done around their events. Although I loved the content of our own TEDx Bloomington, as someone trying to tie in that content to related events around our community, there was no support and in fact active suppression of those kinds of activities. TED and TEDx have a very Mad Men way of thinking about brand and community that I find distasteful.

But to your larger nod toward criticizing the massive online courses that have and continue to grow in popularity, I think that again is a bit of zero-sum thinking. The reality of the coursework is that (a) the content and video instruction is top-notch, (b) the assignments do help move people to some understanding, and (c) the time needed to really invest in each learning community to even approach a classroom environment is significant. It is billed as a panacea of self-led learning from world-class educators, but without the barriers of application/rejection and someone else's schedule. For all of the people who sign up, a very small percentage get that kind of experience and only with a big commitment. For casual learners, the pace is too fast and additional disincentives accumulate too fast.

Institutions of learning are looking for ways to expand their reach and impact on education, both to improve reputation and to tap into new sources of revenue. The learning experience isn't inferior or superior to classroom instruction, but it does have significant differences in how one can interact with the learning. Coursera is a great initiative, but it isn't going to kill learning elsewhere. If anything, the courses should be presented in a more modular way that concludes with ways to continue learning both online and off.

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