Georgia Lawson: Higher education can take a hint from TED

Media Credit: Cartoon by Sophie McTear | Design Editor

We’ve all been there: sitting in a lecture hall, listening to the professor drone on, trying to stay awake but feeling, well, disconnected. Often, I find myself attending lectures just for the participation points.

Of course, I’ve taken a handful of fascinating classes taught by experts in their fields. But even the most dynamic professors are often restricted by an education system that requires them to dump information on us for an hour and 15 minutes.

To begin solving this problem, we can examine a relatively new form of education: TED. A nonprofit organization, TED seeks to spread ideas and generate conversation across the world through a range of short talks. The group’s conferences have even inspired a new branch of events called TEDx, independently organized TED-like conferences.

At GW, students have the perfect opportunity to experience this for themselves. On April 3, Lisner Auditorium will host Foggy Bottom’s annual TEDx event, which has quadrupled its attendance since 2011.

I’m on the organizing team, and working on TEDx this year has made me think more critically about the college experience. TED is an educational platform – with every video I watch, I learn something new. Why is it that I can’t pay attention in math class, but I can become engrossed in a 15-minute talk about numbers? How are TED Talks trendy, while lectures remain dry?

The difference is clear: TED focuses on innovation rather than memorization. It’s a platform for individuals to present non-normative ideas and outline real pathways to change. TED excites people because it demonstrates that there’s still plenty out there waiting to be discovered – and there are new ways to make those discoveries.

Our education system should take a hint from the main point of TED – that people learn better by receiving short, streamlined bursts of information. And TED has generated so much interest because it is focused on the kinds of messages we desperately need to hear.

It has turned a traditional educational format, standing in front of a room and talking, into a widely appealing platform: Students with no background in science can immerse themselves in genetics, and people who have never had the means to travel can learn about the other side of the globe. Talks can be watched online with just a few clicks.

Some may say it’s popular because young people, who comprise a significant portion of the TED viewership, are addicted to screens and have diminishing attention spans. Many of the talks are even available on Netflix.

But we should be open to new methods of spreading information if traditional classes continue to bore students while 18-minute videos pique more interest than the $200,000 education we spend four years trying to secure. If an education is going to get us anywhere, not only do we need to memorize the theories in our textbooks, but we also need to learn how to think critically and act on our knowledge.

It’s time that education takes a hint from TED by bridging this gap between memorization and innovation. We need fewer multiple-choice tests that teach us there are only ever four or five possible answers to a problem. We need to break down the “one-size-fits-all” template of education.

Georgia Lawson, a freshman majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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