Anya Kamenetz, author of the excellent DIY U, has written a wonderful article on TED for Fast Company. She argues that TED, a conference founded by publishing veteran Chris Anderson, is best understood as a more enlightened version of the Ivy League, a web-savvy educational institution that manages to be prestigious and accessible at the same time.
Still, if you were starting a top university today, what would it look like? You would start by gathering the very best minds from around the world, from every discipline. Since we’re living in an age of abundant, not scarce, information, you’d curate the lectures carefully, with a focus on the new and original, rather than offer a course on every possible topic. You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?
The success of TED doesn’t mean that traditional elite institutions don’t have a place. But it provides a very constructive kind of competition. As TED’s “mindshare” expands, we will hopefully see more efforts like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, if only because elite schools don’t want to lose their relevance and their influence. Eventually, the mission of these schools, with their vast resources, will focus more on the wider public than on their own enrolled students, thus delivering more educational bang-for-the-buck. TED is, in a small but important way, teaching educators how to solve the problem of scalability.