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Have TED talks had their day?

The accepted wisdom these days seems to be that you’re not officially a success in your field until you’ve gone viral with your TED talk. Now the educational branch of TED is launching TED-Ed Clubs, an initiative dedicated to helping bright young people formulate and deliver ideas. “The goal is to stimulate and celebrate the best ideas of students around the world,” says Logan Smalley, director of TED-Ed. “It’s about sparking the question of what makes a great presentation; both content and how you present.”

And what could be better than cultivating a future generation of thought leaders? “In practice it’s a little concerning,” counters Carmel Deamicis at PandoDaily. “TED-Ed Clubs curriculum focuses on presentation over fact-checking, much like the TED Talks themselves.” Deamicis raises a valid point; TED talks in general have fallen out of favour recently, with various critics dismissing the concept as a whole as massively oversimplified, viral-friendly “infotainment” at best, and potentially dangerous“placebo science” at worst.

Much of the furore revolves around the way these talks are packaged as ‘all you need to know’, as opposed to a primer in any given subject. Ultimately, a TED talk is one person’s experiences, insights and opinions, compressed into a soundbite-filled presentation. It will not necessarily reflect the learning of an entire sector.

“TED’s lack of substantial peer review and its emphasis on what is new, what isn’t divisive, and what is entertaining rather than accurate or well-researched means that horrendous nonsense can get a wide audience of the rich and powerful,” writes Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones. “The problem isn’t that technology is evil or that nothing should be touchy-feely… These are ideas that are not worth spreading.”

So what does this mean for TED-Ed? Will we soon be seeing an influx of viral videos featuring half-baked ideas from youngsters with charisma but no real grasp of their subject matter? Says Deamicis: “TED is essentially teaching children: Your idea is good simply because it came from you. Here’s how to convince people to believe you.” It’s indicative of the celebrity micro-culture that has emerged from TED; often the person outshines their seminar.

There will always be a space for engaging and thought-provoking discussions, with an emphasis on “discussion”. A TED talk can be a fantastic way to get audiences interested in a new area of science or technology, but it is vital that they continue to pursue additional knowledge and perspectives, and develop their own understanding and opinions, rather than relying on their one TED source. Hopefully the TED speakers of tomorrow will keep this in mind.

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