What’s wrong with TEDxNYED?



TEDxNYED was an interesting event in a couple of ways. A few blog posts have hit my reader already from people I respect (eg Will Richardson, who was in attendance, and Jim Groom, who was not there but posted on a topic directly related to the TED and TEDxNYED phenomena). I enjoyed many of the talks but walked away feeling more defeated than energized.

I’ve always had extremely mixed feelings about TED talks. I’ve watched a few dozen of the freely available videos over the years, and most seem, in my unstudied view, to be little more than glorified project pimps or book promos. I’m sure that the folks who organize TED try hard to keep explicit self-promotion off of the stage, but in the end it’s a symptom of the format: if you invite someone to give a very brief, non-specialist-level teaser on some piece of great work they’ve done, what can it really be except for a bragfest?



Sitting through TEDxNYED, I was in a sense relieved that all of the talks were limited to 18 minutes (a cornerstone of the TED philosophy) – the energy level in the room stayed pretty consistently high, which can largely be attributed to the brevity of the talks. But I also found myself frustrated, in much the same way that I do with TED talks in general, with the lack of focus on just what the 18-minute talk is supposed to do. Few of the talks present anything resembling a thesis; in eightteen minutes, just what kind of thesis worth defending could be laid out, considered, justified? It’s not as if argumentative presentations are the only ones worth giving – far from it – but in the absence of an argument to give structure to the talk, there has to be some other purpose. Some of the talks fall into the “rallying cry” category, which is to say that they present an issue in a way to get people emotionally involved enough to want to get out there and participate. This is a more realistic goal for 18 minutes, but few speakers have the humility, grace, eloquence, and project to pull it off. TED states its mission as “spreading ideas”, which in its vagueness is an indicator of how the individual talks themselves can vary so much in their focus, or lack focus altogether.

Then there is what D’Arcy Norman has called the “elitism” of TED. I will say happily that the TEDxNYED application did not ask for lifetime achievements, but only for a few sentences explaining why I wanted to attend the event. I don’t know how many people were turned away from the event, and what role these few sentences played in choosing who got in and who didn’t, so I’m afraid I can’t corroborate whether this was an awesomeness-filter. Related to D’Arcy’s concern, though, is the more worrisome hero worship that Jim gestures toward in his post. You invite a bunch of famous-on-the-edtech-internet folks to speak, fill the room with education dorks (which I mean in the sweetest way possible, including myself in the ‘dork’ camp), and then watch the echo chamber effect get out of control. As I heard a few people lament throughout the day, the people who really should be hearing some of the talks – and in particular the “rallying cry” kind of talk – were not the kinds of people who come to an event like this. Will’s post points out nicely the tendency to feel giddy after a day of chumming with like-minded folks, and the difficulty of connecting back with the work you do in your everyday life.



I saw a tweet in the middle of the day – wish I could find it now – that remarked on the irony of a day full of lectures delivered to a roomful of people who love to decry the utility of lectures as a learning tool. Another part of the TED philosophy is that “all of knowledge is connected” (which, understood in the right way, can be an interesting hypothesis) but I walk away from the day feeling that connections between the presentations are still largely hidden or at least implicit. This disjointedness is in part a product of the unidirectional nature of the TED format: the speakers have a chance to connect by making references to earlier events in the day, but there’s no organized way for the audience to do the kind of hands-on synthesis that would ground the connections in their own experiences and goals. Some of these connections are made informally over lunch and at the after-party, but at those events I found myself talking to people I already knew about things we already agreed upon. Largely my own fault, I suppose, but it’s also a function of the way that the TED conference is not set up to encourage cross-pollenization of ideas between .

The above sounds like a lot of complaining. It’s not meant to be. I’m very glad I had the chance to hear several of the speakers through the day, and I made some nice personal contacts with people I had only heard of or only knew on the internet. The day was a net positive for me. But I can’t help but think that the TED format, while perhaps being well-suited to some purposes (explaining why neuroscience is important for non-neuroscientists, maybe), it’s more difficult to reconcile it with the needs of a community, like the NY educational community, that already shares certain practices and beliefs.

14 thoughts on “What’s wrong with TEDxNYED?

  1. Elizabeth Wellburn

    I do understand the concerns about elitism, etc., but I believe that the spirit of sharing seems to tip the balance towards inclusiveness. Sort of what David Wiley was talking about. If TED talks were in truly “closed” rooms, then, yes, it would be “special” information available only to “special” people. But the beauty is that anybody with internet can view these ideas, and contribute online — like I’m doing now 🙂

    b.t.w. I too noted the folks who were tweeting about “why is TED in a lecture format?”

    I answered a few of them with my thoughts that first of all, it isnÂ’t that lectures are “evil” (at least, I don’t think anybody was saying that) — itÂ’s the “memorize what I say in the lecture and regurgitate it on for the test” mindset of many educational institutions that is the problem. And besides, TED lectures are part of something much much bigger. Yes there are ideas on the stage but they are surrounded by all the networking of the people in the room, all the sharing into the future (again, WileyÂ’s open versus closed), and all the simultaneous backstories in social media.

  2. Jose

    I do agree with you on a few points here. Unless you seek those connections, TED talks in general don’t make people connect with each other or build upon what they learned in each segment. TED talks don’t speak to the people who need to hear this the most. TED talks often feature people who everyone’s seen … at least for those known to edu-techies.

    All of this is neither here nor there.

    As someone who’s not part of the ed-tech group and an attendee, I was fascinated by these new people. Even people like Chris Lehmann and Dan Meyer who I’ve known for years now on the Internet, I’d never actually met before, and just connecting on a personal level made their message more real.

    Plus, don’t we often find that the functions where reluctant teachers or uninformed teachers actually go to are the ones that their schools send them to? Wouldn’t that mean, then, that people like me and you would have to be the early adapters to carry that message back anyways?

    I’m more playing devil’s advocate here because I found so much of yesterday’s talk applicable to teacher preparation and getting those who may not have had this experience before on any level a chance as well. I’ll be hoping to implement the smaller parts into my repertoire and the bigger parts later on when I get to digest it all.

    Just a thought. Wish we had this conversation in person, man.

  3. Mikhail Gershovich

    I’m still trying to get my head around my experience at TEDxNYED and our conversations about why the event was stimulating but oddly unsatisfying at the same time. While I found it engaging and valuable and am very happy I was able to attend, I too was struck by the fact that it did feel largely unidirectional (I suppose that is is the point to some extent) — and you’re right that the cohesion was largely implied or emerged in informal conversations during breaks. I suppose I wanted dialogue and exchange to be organic, integral, rather than icing on a cake, applied when the real substance is already baked. Maybe that’s why it felt so radical, almost scandalous, when speakers challenged the conventions of TED and either broke the 4th wall as Jeff Jarvis and Dan Cohen did or directly challenged or attempted to enter into dialogue with a fellow presenter as George Siemens did with Jeff Jarvis’ shill for a corporate model of education and rousing but cliched attack on standardized testing. The more I think about it, the more it feels to me that much of event was about performing ideas than rather than spreading them with a mind to action of some sort.

  4. Matt

    I wasn’t in attendance and I was able to watch only a few of the presentations via ustream, but I do think we should note that Dan Cohen’s presentation both had a thesis and made a gesture towards breaking the lecture format (at least in a small way) by canvasing the audience for comments.

    Related to the hero worship objection is something Dan noted on twitter: that “virtually all of the things the host called ‘mine’ in that short bio are actually collaborations. An important point.”

    Indeed — and a point that highlights many of the objections you’ve raised here.

  5. Boone Gorges Post author

    Thanks for your comments so far, everyone.

    Elizabeth – I’m more or less with you on the elitism point, at least as regards availability of the lecture material. Also, touchĂ© on the lectures vs rote-learning distinction. But there’s still a tension, especially when you think about George Siemens’s position that learning = connection. The kinds of connections fostered by an event with TED’s structure are limited and to an extent one-sided. When connections happen between attendees, it strikes me as being despite the setup of the conference, not really because it. I should be clear, though: not every conference can be everything to everybody, and it’s not TED’s job to provide great content AND great networking AND great connection AND etc. Just that in this case the emphasis seemed less than ideally balanced to me.

    Jose – Ditto on wishing we’d been able to talk about it in person. I suppose that while it’s sad that sometimes the conversations only bloom afterwards, it’s a good thing that we have spaces like blogs and Twitter that can contain them. In any case, if your point is that the conference is of different value for different people, then I agree 100%. I went in being quite familiar with much of the writing of around half of the presenters, and while it was fun to see them in person, the condensed time frame and reframing for newbies in some cases made the message seem like a caricature of their more in-depth work. That probably wouldn’t be the case for people who didn’t already know their work – so I guess the question is, were more of the attendees like me, or were many of the ideas new for many people?

    Mikhail – Very glad you and I got to experience TEDxNYED together – it was great bouncing our analyses off of each other as the day went on. I like your distinction between the performance of ideas and the spreading of ideas, as the word “performance” really sums up for me both what is good and what is bad about TED. At its best (here I’m thinking of Chris Abani’s videotaped talk, which was not obviously all that relevant but was enchanting all the same) the performances that TED is all about have the ability to open up new ways of thinking or new areas of knowledge to you. In this sense performance leads to spreading. But at its worse, the performative tone of some TED talks can be so self-congratulatory and focused on the TED aesthetic that the content, the ideas, actually get buried. TEDxNYED was a mix of these two kinds of performance.

    Matt – I didn’t mean to suggest that there were no argumentative talks, at the same time that I didn’t mean to suggest that having an argumentative talk indicated that the talk was not as good as it might have been. (I also didn’t go out of my way to mention which specific talks were better than others in which ways 🙂 ) As an academic I am used to argumentative talks, and being used to them means that I tend to get a bit more out of them, but I recognize that my own views might be idiosyncratic. As for your (and Dan’s) point about collaborations: there is a lot to be said for the extent to which the tasks of the digital humanities projects Dan specializes in, as well as the larger education projects reflected at TED, are to a fault the result of necessarily collaborative processes. That seems to me to be at the heart of Jim’s post on “credit”. There is a tension between the format of TED, which is about celebrating the individual achievements of individual agents, and the collaborative nature of knowledge and education that emerged from some of the talks.

  6. Joe

    The problem I think is that we are trying to compare TEDxNYED to the definition of a conference (or the opposite an un-conference) rather than looking at it for what it was; an experience. An experience to hear first hand from experts about how they think their work can inform our work as educators and an opportunity to connect with like-minded people.

  7. Chris Lehmann

    I think about TED as a modern take on the old-time Chautauqua. It is a day of short talks, with opportunities to talk about them in between.

    When we at SLA took the opportunity to design a conference, we did EduCon which has a decidedly different format. (Conversation-based, 90 minute long sessions.)

    And I love doing discursive workshops a lot. But I also recognize the power that a good speech can have. I didn’t love every talk, but I took something from every talk, and I loved several of them.

    I think the TED format is the TED format. There are times when it’s the way I want to learn (and I’ve watched dozens of TED talks… and some have been amazing and some haven’t) and there are times it’s not. What I thought was amazing about what the TEDxNYED folks did was that they created an event that really had the feel of what I imagine “the” TED must have. And they did it around education, which I thought was also wonderful.

  8. Boone Gorges Post author

    Joe – You’re probably right that I’m wrong judge TED by the same standards as I would use to judge a conference. But if one of the standards of a conference is the extent to which it encourages active connection between like-minded people, I don’t think TEDxNYED succeeded – the structure was such that I made few connections with people I didn’t already know.

    Chris – Chautauqua as a frame of reference sheds light on what is best about the TED format: it’s a capsular, accessible introduction to a vast field of knowledge, putting an entire field in context for total neophytes. The peculiar thing about the ed focus at TEDxNYED is that very few in the audience qualify as newbies. The members of the audience are already practitioners – experts of a sort, though certainly with expertise that only partially overlaps with others’ in the room – and, moreover, are already to a greater or lesser extent familiar with the work of the speakers. So the specialization of TEDxNYED is at least somewhat at odds with the strengths of TED in general.

    After your closing talk, Chris, another metaphor for TED (or at least TEDxNYED) came to mind: the old-time spiritual revival. Revivalists are literally preaching to the choir, but that’s kind of the point: focusing shared energy on some already agreed-upon premises can do a lot toward spurring people to further action. Some of the most stirring talks at the event (and I’d place yours at the top of the list in this category) felt very much like this kind of revival speech, telling us things we already believe but in a way that urges us to action. There’s a lot of value in this. But I’d wager that such a revival can only really be successful with some time to do small-group processing, so that you can walk away with some action items (if you’ll pardon the corporate-speak). TEDxNYED felt heavy on the inspiration and light on the practical details, which, at least for me, has a tendency to overwhelm in a less than ideally productive way.

  9. Joe

    Boone – is it the responsibility to facilitate active connections between like-minded people really the organizers’ job or to encourage them? I thought there was plenty of time to socialize and talk to people you didn’t know, but it was up to each participant to do that. Therefore I think they encouraged it but didn’t put you in a room and give you a reason to talk to someone (facilitation).

    What I think would have been interesting is small group discussion with the presenter as moderator during some of the breaks. I have no point of entry to go up to Jenkins or Lessig and actually engage in conversation as I (and I think a lot of people) are in awe of their work. But if you put me in a group with 15 others, perhaps than I could have engaged with these scholars.

    Also, I wonder if the experience of TED was different for the presenters than it was for us as the audience? I would be interested in knowing what the presenters learned at TED.

  10. Pingback: TEDxNYED-ed - CogDogBlog

  11. Boone Gorges Post author

    Dan – Thanks. It was great seeing you as well!

    Joe – You’re absolutely right that the responsibility was largely on individuals to make the most of the generous free time. But something a bit more structured might have helped some members of the audience who are, as Jay Rosen put it (roughly), introverts who have learned to feign cordiality. The intimidation I would feel in approaching someone like Lessig is amplified by the dark auditorium, bright spotlight format of TEDxNYED, which makes ice-breaking structure all the more important.

    As for the speakers’ points of view, a few have posted reflections:

  12. Pingback: TEDxNYED: quatorze confĂ©rences sur l’Ă©ducation qui vous remontent un moral | Mario tout de go

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *