Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

What’s The Problem with TED Ed ?

TED Ed had drawn much attention because of the big audience from TED platform. While as we talk about education, a closer examination is always necessary. This is not arguing that TED Ed has no value in education, but to re-think what true learning is and what current technologies can offer for it. TED talk is a phenomenon in 21st century, but it’s only the beginning of what technologies can bring us.  The first part came from TeachPaperless (by Shelly Blake-Plock, licensed under CC-BY).


The problem with TED Ed is the problem of what we define in traditional education as a “lesson”.


In life, we learn lessons by trial-and-error. We burn our hand on the stove as children and therefore learn that the stove gets hot. Over time we realize it gets hot because its purpose is to cook food. Some of us learn how the stove works and become mechanics or industrial engineers; others of us become chefs. Most of us just realize to keep our hands out of hot stuff.

But we all learn by doing and by making mistakes.

And I emphasize “doing”.

TED — in the form it is presented online to the masses — is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn’t confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with “learning”.

And much of what we have called “lessons” over the decades really aren’t lessons at all — they are consumables. They are short narratives consumed by students who are then asked to fill in bubbles that demonstrate that the student either was paying a modicum of attention or that the student has good natural deductive skills in parsing the quiz-maker’s craft.

And so we added the essay, the brief constructed response, the formal answer. And we said it was good because now we had brought qualitative and subjective response and the skill of argument to the assessment of learning. And we judged it objectively. And we kicked the poets out of town.

None of this led to “learning” for the overwhelming majority of students. If it had, we would not be at the crisis stage in education and culture.

And so, I was interested though skeptical of TED Ed when it was announced. And now, in seeing where it is going I am depressed.

Let’s consider the things that TED Ed asks the learner to do: watch a video, take a multiple-choice quiz, write brief constructed responses, and read through a bibliography. If I took the name TED out of this scenario, I would suggest that many educators would say that this format is exactly the type of traditional assessment that project-based, inquiry-driven, personalized learning is at odds with.

It is perfectly fine to watch a video. It is perfectly fine to view a lecture. It is perfectly fine to quiz yourself on what you remember from the video or the lecture. It is perfectly fine to write a brief response about a big question. But let’s not call that a lesson. That’s just a starting point.

Lessons come from doing.

Our mother told us the stove was hot. She told us not to touch. If we were asked what mother said, we would say: “She said not to touch the stove. The stove is hot.”

But we didn’t learn a lesson until we touched the stove and got burned.

Lessons worth sharing are lessons that come from out of doing. And if we are going to bring education to the online space what we need right now is a platform that exists to help us do a lot more than flip the classroom. We desperately need a platform that exists to help us learn lessons by doing.

Will TED Ed evolve into that? Will MITx? Will any of the current rage of MOOCs?

Therein may lie a lesson.


And the second part is from a research finding about active learning and passive learning. (post by Clark Aldrich, Serious Play Conference): Student Action is Necessary for Student Learning.

[Held, R., & Hein, A. Movement-produced stimulation in the development of visually guided behavior. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1963, 56, 872–876]

This experiment demonstrated that active participation with content is necessary for learning. Once again, learning has to be an active process. It is not enough to passively be exposed to educational material, no matter how inspiring or accurate or well crafted.

This is problematic for anyone who champions education programs that lean heavily on traditional approaches. Up until a few years ago, most real-world implementations of education programs relied on methodologies that are passive, including asking students to read, sit in lectures, watch videos, and even author passive content themselves through written tests.

Now, however, we are in the midst of an education revolution. We know how to make pedagogically rigorous active content that both transforms the competence and conviction of students, but is cost-effective and scalable.

With digital technologies, there is great potential to facilitate truly effective learning environments if we don’t limit the vision and imagination by ourselves. TED Ed might lay a stepping stone for further approaching to this goal.


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2 Responses »

  1. Thoughtful post. I agree with the reasoning here, but I think you’ve applied it a bit faultily to the one platform that I’ve found that is in fact taking online education into the non-passive zone. I think Shelly Blake-Pock did the same thing in his article.

    There is no mention of a key feature that TED-Ed provides—the ability for students to take ownership and build content.

    TED-Ed allows anyone to not just consume lessons, but to create them. Yes, that means teachers can create them and distribute them passively, and I’m sure that is happening A LOT, but it also means students can create them. And not only that, TED-Ed also allows anyone to re-customize any lesson that they feature. And that is what i did in my class just last week.

    I challenged every student to create a customized lesson for their learning partner using the TED-Ed tool. They could use the example video I showed, or pull in any video from YouTube using the site. They loved it! They took total ownership of the task. The customizations they came up with were wild. One student suggested a project in his lesson that the entire class is considering adopting, and another used his iphone to video himself with the idea of uploading it to youtube and pulling it into the ted-ed site. I had to stop him on account of school social media policy…but that gripe is for a different blog post!

    I agree that every educational website out there can be improved, TED-Ed included, but I’m excited about this one because the quality is so high, because of what it models, and because it allows my students and I play an ACTIVE role in improving it.

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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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