Sorry Harvard, I got into TED!

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What is the future of elite education, and what are the stakes for equality?

Anya Kamenetz's article, alluringly subtitled “How TED Became the New Harvard,” makes the argument that the elite conference/video sharing site has all the attributes of the next generation of elite education: tightly curated lectures from globally recognized leaders, distributed widely for free, discussed widely in facilitated local groups.

The appeal is obvious. By making lectures open to all, TED facilitates anyone in the world consuming elite content regardless of economic circumstance. By inviting only the very best-known to give lectures, TED ensures that most of their content is, if not fantastic, at least prestigious.

What's curiously absent from Kamenetz's article is any discussion of the credentialing function served by universities. The world in which only students of the most elite universities would have physical access to information is clearly over. However, as long as companies, graduate schools, and elite nonprofits continue to offer better opportunities

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to Stanford grads t

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han Samford grads, elite education will remain secure. Exposure to ideas is in no way co-equal with exposure to opportunity.

The obvious difficulties in Kamenetz's argument should provoke some thought as to what education really could look like in 20 years; those concerned with equality should also be concerned with how technology can impact such a large source of societal stratification. What is good about TED is that it syndicates knowledge widely; MIT has been doing this for a few years already with many of their courses but of course offers no accreditation to online students. On the non-elite side of the ledger, University of Phoenix has built accreditation without exclusivity. There is no obvious solution to this trade-off.

One answer may lie in a push to create standardized academic standards for college graduates. The same way that SATs normalize candidates from a wide variety of socio-economic and regional backgrounds, exit examinations could do the same. (I understand that a number of European systems use such exams).

What the next generation of educational institutions can do is to make it clear where graduates of every school (including, possibly, TED) stand in terms of actual knowledge and abilities as opposed to pedigree alone.

- John

Image courtesy Wikicommons

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    Jacob Bronsther is a law student at NYU. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from Oxford.

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