Will William Jennings Bryan Keynote TED 2013?*

*This isn’t about hologram technology, though that would be pretty sweet.

Seems that TED is a bit upset that some of its TEDx offshoots aren’t properly vetting speakers on the basis of academic rigor or sound research practice:

Critics take issue with TEDx talks that have featured such topics as touch-healing the brain, rebirthing, crystal therapy and nonsense math.

TED is an interesting phenomenon:  putting together prolific thinkers and speakers to provide insight on new and unique things happening around the world is a great tool in the Information Age.  I fell in love with Ken Robinson based on his TED talk in 2006, and have seen great examples of energy, knowledge and enthusiasm from the likes of Al Gore, Jane McGonigal and Keith Barry.  But the concept wore thin quickly, especially when most every video followed a standard format:  anecdote that seemingly has nothing to do with speaker, shock, sales pitch, back to the anecdote, synthesis.  The time limit caused great minds to forego their intellect and find an inner Billy Mays instead, and the adherence to format cheapened the experience for me.A professor of mine recently keynoted a TEDx event, and he confirmed my suspicions about the group.  To paraphrase, he said that the head of this specific TEDx looked at the event in Hollywood terms, was hands-on in the format shaping of this person’s speaking, and had a great deal of focus on pizzaz rather than product.

My problem is not necessarily with TEDx putting faith healers on stage, however.  I see an issue more with the overall approach, not as a tool but as an end.  Back to the LA Times, this time quoting science writer Carl Zimmer:

In effect, [at TED] you’re meant to feel as if you’re receiving a revelation.  TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say.  They are promising to rock your world, even if they’re only talking about mushrooms.

In the business of selling tickets (and getting page clicks), pop and pizzaz sell.  Sure, people like Clay Shirky and Steve Jobs end up on my screen, but does it really matter if they are diluted down to 15 minutes?  I saw Ken Robinson speak at the University of Redlands back in early 2011, and his 90 minutes was much better than the 15 TED gave me.  Getting more out of something you put more time into is true of most things, but if we sell TED as education we are selling 15 minute sales pitches as education, and expecting someone else to direct the learner to the right places for further study and introspection.

Of course, TED makes it possible for anyone with a computer and a fast enough Internet connection to hear Ken Robinson speak on creativity, and perhaps someone who could not see him live will listen and fall in love and it will change their life for the better.  That is democratization. The problem with democratization as far as it’s concerned in education circles is that we haven’t figured out how to provide greater access and keep up the same quality.  It doesn’t matter how pretty HD is, 90 minutes in a room Ken Robinson can work is better than 15 minutes on my computer screen.  Technology should help us develop new learning theories and pedagogies, not pizzaz up the old ones.

What does any of this have to do with presidential candidate and orator William Jennings Bryan?  Bryan was heavily involved in the Chautauqua Institution, which is best labeled as an institution (at one point or another, Chautauqua was a Bible school, a university, a series of correspondence courses, a group of satellite institutions, and a tent revival).  He spoke over 3,000 times as part of their traveling speaker series, reaching an audience that (if you believe the press clippings) could be 10,000 at a time, meaning he could have spoken to millions.  Chautauqua was TED 110 years ago.

I plan to get into much greater detail in the future about Chautauqua, but it seems to have been the best and the worst of education democratized.  Yes, through efforts such as correspondence courses and tent revivals, people could see the likes of William Jennings Bryan or perhaps Mark Twain speak, gaining their insight into the world in a way they’d be unable to do without it.  At the same time, Chautauqua employed magicians, musical acts, and somewhat Vaudvellian acts to accompany their revivals, one of the many reasons people questioned the academic rigor of Chautauqua.  However, Chautauqua was one of the first accredited institutions to actively seek women and African Americans as students, adopting a policy of openness decades before others. But accreditation was questionable, and Chautauqua’s degree-granting arm went the way of other correspondence schools known to be of low quality, folding into oblivion around the time of the Great Depression.

I bring this up because education now has TED-Ed, a way to use quality videos to teach content through the process of flipping.  They say it’s revolutionary, but it’s just a mechanized way to do something a couple of religious scholars started at a summer retreat in 1874.  Their effort exploded in a good, and then not so good, way.  So far, TED has followed in footsteps both in growth as well as pedagogy.  We will see if there is anything new in the future, but until then, beware the laying of hands.

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