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Can TED Talks Really Work in a Classroom?

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By Katrina Schwartz

There's been a lot of excitement around TED’s foray into education, bringing its inspirational video model to the classroom. TED-Ed launched the YouTube Channel with produced and animated videos about two months ago and now includes a free service that lets teachers upload any YouTube video to its polished platform. Teachers can also make any of the videos -- TED or any other -- more relevant to their classes by adding customized questions and quizzes.

But it's a work in progress at the moment, until educators can figure out the best ways to use the videos. The standard TED talk typically features a speaker, usually an expert in a subject, talking about innovations and inspirations. Most speakers cover topics in big, broad strokes, unlike, for example, Khan Academy videos, which parse and explain specific lessons in different subjects.

Under the math topic, for example, TED-Ed includes videos like How Folding Paper Can Get You to the Moon or Peter Donnelly Shows How Stats Fool Juries. For the curious, there are videos like Questions No One Knows the Answers To and The Power of Simple Words.

And it's this curiosity that most teachers expect TED-Ed videos will feed. “I see them as a valuable inspirational tool,” said Aaron Sams, a high school chemistry teach in Woodland Park, Colorado who uses video lectures to supplement in-class learning. “It’s by no means a comprehensive understanding. It’s a good introduction."

For example, Sams showed his class Just How Small is an Atom and incorporated the pre-made questions that accompanied it to give them a sense of awe about chemistry.


TED-Ed videos aren't meant to be a substitute for what happens in the classroom, said Logan Smalley, TED-Ed’s director. “The videos, and the new TED-Ed platform, are resources that teachers can use to excite, inspire, and bring to life lessons that are already being taught," he said. "The great thing about TED-Ed is that educators can use these tools however best suits their – and their students’ – needs."

Stacey Roshan, a math teacher in Potomac, Maryland uses the videos in a similar way as Sams. She's spent the last month preparing her juniors and seniors for the AP Calculus exam and said TED-Ed is “not good for cramming for the AP. But as far as inspiration to get them thinking and thinking critically it’s hugely useful.” Roshan sees TED-Ed videos as a way to access great lesson plans from teachers across the country.

TED-Ed is actively reaching out to educators for effective material that can be jazzed up by animators. “The animation piece alone engages the learner in such a different way,” Roshan said. “It’s such a powerful visual.”


But the real power of the new TED-Ed site is the platform itself. Teachers can upload any YouTube video, including their own, to TED-Ed’s platform. They can add discussion questions, quizzes and monitor the progress of their students through a unique URL that the site generates.

“They made a really flexible tool for teachers,”  Sams said. He values the connection he forms with his students through his own videos, but he  thinks that TED-Ed’s animated videos are slick and potentially better than his own for getting his students excited about a topic. His own instructional videos can subsequently delve into the subject matter more deeply. Sams would like to submit his videos to the animators to be polished up.

Quiz from the "Power of Simple Words" video.

The platform for flipping YouTube videos also appeals to Roshan, who has embraced the flipped classroom model. Now students watch and re-watch the lecture at home, where they can absorb it at a leisurely pace. Class time focuses on solving problems. Like Sams, she’s excited by the opportunity to customize videos.

TED-Ed will be adding more videos to the site in the coming months – videos chosen to catalyze curiosity. Teachers can submit lesson plans for animation and TED-Ed staff will actively be seeking new material. That could include taking a video that a teacher has already made and found useful, adding animation and production finesse to make it catchier and then posting it to the site for anyone to use.