Tag Archives: conference

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.

Tweeting the CUNY Gen Ed Conference

On Friday, May 8, I attended the 2009 CUNY General Education Conference at Lehman College. I got a chance to see some really interesting presentations: Marc Prensky’s broad keynote on how today’s students demand a different kind of education; a panel on using games in education; and a panel on ePortfolios and the Online BA. More importantly, I met a few people doing cool stuff in instructional tech around CUNY.

There was a bit of a Twitter backchannel, which I thought I would post here for posterity’s sake. For the time being, it can be viewed via Twitter Search. I’ve also used Cast Iron Coding’s awesome (and free) Tweetripper PHP script to archive the stream. Download that text file here: cunygened-tweets.txt.

The catalytic effect of a Twitter backchannel

Yesterday I attended the Annual Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction at Baruch College, put on by Mikhail and the fine folks at the Bernard L Schwartz Communication Institute. I’ve got a couple of blog posts in the hopper that are inspired by conversations that happened there, but for now here’s a quickie.


Inspired by @hillmill’s tweet, a discussion took place at our lunch table (I think it was me, Suzanne, Matt, and Luke) about how using Twitter as a conference backchannel can turn someone from a casual twitterer to a Serious Twit. Here’s a theory for why that is. The benefit that Twitter backchannels (TBs) can have for conferences has been pretty widely discussed (though, lazy guy that I am, I don’t have any good links right at hand). TBs allow attendees to keep tabs on what’s happening in sessions other than the ones they’re physically attending. They provide a space where people can share immediate feedback on keynotes without all that distracting whispering. TBs also give users a chance to connect to each other in ways that are in a sense more organic than more traditional conference events. I made some connections, for instance, during our morning roundtable discussions, but these were largely accidents of who happened to be at my table – I connected to users of the TB, on the other hand, because of the things they were tweeting about. Even if this isn’t a better way to connect, it’s at least another way, which is surely a good thing. Moreover, TBs allow the conference to benefit people who aren’t in attendance, an effect that is multiplied by retweeting. (If you want some evidence of these effects, check out the #blsci tweet timeline.)

All this is to say that TBs are good for conferences and conference-goers. What makes TBs a good induction into Twitter is the act of witnessing these benefits. When I attended the 2008 CUNY IT Conference last year, I expected it to be like most conferences I’d attended – good in parts, but largely isolating and kind of boring. Given these expectations, experiencing the benefits of that conference’s TB was exhilarating. I knew before going to this conference that Twitter could be a fun performance space, maybe a good place to share links – but seeing it in action as a TB was what really sold me on the technology.

Here’s hoping that #blsci had a similar effect on @hillmill and the other relative Twitter-newbies who experienced the event’s TB.

I’d be interested to hear whether this has happened to others. Have you attended an event where the TB changed the way you think about Twitter?