TED and Competition

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Anya Kamenetz’s excellent Fast Company article on TED suggests that the series of talks viewable online are sort of like an Ivy League for the 21st Century. Reihan Salam waxes optimistic:

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, will 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.

I certainly hope this is true, and take that to be a sketch of an appealing possible world. But I’m not really sure it’s the most likely outcome. After all, as Brad DeLong likes to point out the “get a bunch of people in a room to listen to some guy talk” model of education was an organizational response to the high price of books. In principle, it would seem to have been made obsolete by the printing press and the public library. Yet obviously that didn’t happen. Colleges and universities managed to make themselves indispensable sources of credentials and social prestige. And though they’ve of course incorporated information technology innovations into their work, they still engage in an incredible quantity of pre-Gutenberg educating.

Which is just to say that I think there’s a need to not just let this process play out, but for alumni of the richest universities—people like Salam and Kamenetz and myself—to take some direct action. Simply put, people need to be told that giving money to fancy colleges mostly seems like a big waste rather than something praiseworthy. Money should be given to educational institutions (whether at the K-12 or “higher” level) that are doing good work helping children from underprivileged backgrounds (and, no, offering generous financial aid to kids from poor families and then not admitting any doesn’t count) or else to innovative programs aimed at diffusing knowledge much more widely than a pool of several thousand undergraduates. Institutions will change when people try to force them to. People give money to non-profits in order to elevate their social status—if we change social conventions about what constitutes praiseworthy donating, then things will change.