The Digital Education Revolution, Cont'd: Meet TED-Ed's New Online Learning Platform

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TED's new tool lets teachers create customized lessons that revolve around web video.

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The iconic image of high school education, forged for most of us through personal experience and viewings of Dead Poets Society, is this: a teacher, standing in front of his or her class, lecturing. There are exceptions, definitely: the class discussion, the interactive lab experiment, the game, the field trip. For the most part, though, despite years of education reform, we tend of think of education as a highly vertical experience, one of active teachers and passive students, one in which knowledge radiates out from a single speaker to a roomful of silent listeners.

That model is changing, though, and quickly. Increasingly, education -- in college, definitely, but in high school and elementary school, too -- is becoming more horizontally integrated, guided by conversation and interaction and the productive chaos of student curiosity. The latest evidence of that comes courtesy of TED, the group of conference and web video fame. Back in March, TED, after realizing that teachers had begun using its iconic videos as instructional aides, launched a YouTube channel dedicated to educational videos.

Today, it's going a step further: TED-Ed is launching a suite of tools that allow teachers to design their own web-assisted curricula, complete with videos, comprehension-testing questions, and conversational tools. TED-Ed provides a template -- think Power Point slides, with populate-able fields -- that teachers can fill in with customized content: lesson titles, lesson links, student names, embedded video, test questions, and the like. Once saved, a lesson generates a unique URL, which allows teachers to track which students have watched assigned videos, how they've responded to follow-up questions, and, in general, how they've interacted with the lesson itself.

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Most intriguing: Teachers can customize the lessons they create on a student-by-student basis, using the TED-Ed platform both to track individual student progress and to tailor questions to student interests and skill levels. The site offers real-time feedback to students, letting them know when they get answers right and providing hints when they get answers wrong.

That's big. And it could be, just a little bit, revolutionary. The core assumption of the industrialized education model, after all -- since the inception of the universal public school system in the mid-19th century until, pretty much, today -- has been one of collectivity and community. Education has operated, overall, on a cohort model: Students learn and test and advance as a group, grade by grade, class by class. Classes move, together, through a prescribed -- and proscribed -- curriculum.

That's been a necessary system: In a world where students are abundant and teachers are relatively scarce, grouping students into units has been a matter of industrial efficiency. It would be not only impractical, but also pretty much impossible, to create a learning model that, rather than being standardized, revolved around the individualized needs of individual students. So we've done our best with what we've had.

But the cohort model has been problematic, too, most notably in its tendency to undermine students' specific, highly idiosyncratic interests and learning preferences. Students learn in different ways, at different speeds; the cohort model -- because it has had to -- has pretty much ignored that.

Online platforms, however -- efforts like Khan Academy and, now, TED-Ed -- have the potential to re-individualize the education experience. They empower teachers to relate to their students on a one-on-one, and one-by-one, basis. They allow for what Aaron Sams, a Colorado chemistry teacher, calls an "asynchronous environment" in the classroom: one that allows students to learn at their own pace, according to their own interests, guided -- rather than simply dictated to -- by their teachers. The TED-Ed tools, which Sams has been testing with his high school classes in their beta form, are, he told me, "just one more tool in the toolbox to meet kids where they are."

Video, unsurprisingly, is an important component of that toolbox. Teachers have long used video in the classroom, both as an engagement aide and as a way of bringing variety to the standard lecture-followed-maybe-by-some-discussion class format. And yet, on its own, "video can be a passive experience," says Logan Smalley, whose official title is "TED-Ed catalyst" and who oversees, in that capacity, TED's educational video outreach. "But if it's surrounded by engagement tools, its engagement can be increased by orders of magnitude." Ultimately, he told me, TED's newest pedagogical platform is "all about a teacher being able to find the perfect video for the perfect moment in class." 

Which is not to say that all teachers will avail themselves of the opportunity. Curriculum standards are notoriously strict; testing standards are notoriously stricter. For many teachers, though, teaching tools that act just as that -- tools -- might offer the best way to marry new pedagogical approaches with existing pedagogical assumptions. Sams, for example, assigns video-watching as homework, done in students' own time, so that class time is reserved for conversation and follow-up work. He teaches the same core content as other high school chemistry teachers; he just teaches that content in a more flexible, student-friendly way. And he treats the Internet, in that sense, not as an out-of-class barrier to student learning, but as an out-of-class enabler of it. "I asked myself, 'What's the most valuable thing to do with the face time I have with my students?'" he says. "And the answer was not, 'Stand up and lecture them.'" 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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