This article was published in the New York Times on September 24, 2010.
A Conference Makes Learning Free (and Sexy)
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM – Published: September 24, 2010
ONCE a year, there is a mass migration of the intelligentsia to Long Beach, California. There, inside the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, a block from the Pacific Ocean, they gather for four days to share ideas and score gift bags at the TED Conference. Sold out a year in advance, the conference has scholars, scientists, musicians as speakers. They are boldface names: Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Jane Goodall. And as for any A-list party, an invitation is required.
The price to get in: $6,000.
Unable to meet the growing demand for access to TED, its organizers decided to democratize. They imagined a new conference that was TED but not TED, organized by local groups like schools, businesses, neighborhoods, even friends — at an unTED-like price: free.
And so last year the TED principals introduced a new concept called TEDx. They encouraged would-be organizers to apply for free licenses, and hoped for the best.
“It wasn’t clear at all that it would work,” said Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, which takes its name from the conference’s original areas of focus: technology, entertainment and design. He figured the inaugural year would bring 10 to 30 TEDx events, primarily in the United States.
To his surprise, there were 278 events last year in places as near as New Jersey and Florida, and as far as Estonia and China. There was TEDxKibera, held in one of Africa’s largest shantytowns in Nairobi, Kenya. And there was TEDxNASA, which had space-themed lectures.
Already this year there have been 531 TEDx events. Another nearly 750 are to take place this year and beyond.
“Students can’t afford to go to TED,” said Marina Kim, 27, who in 2009 organized TEDxAshokaU — part of Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs based in Arlington, Va. — and is planning a TEDx event for February. “The power of TEDx is that people can spread the same message but it’s user-generated,” she said.
Many TED and TEDx talks can be seen free on the Web, where they are the antipode of the viral videos of laughing cats and dancing babies that entertain millions of bored office workers each day. And yet the TED videos, too, have gone viral — viewed more than 319 million times since they went online in 2006.
There are TEDx talks about math curriculum’s, health care and mastering the work-life balance. Often, they capture the local flavor of the city in which they are held, like the TEDx event about breaking down walls held on and around the Great Wall of China. Rarely are they as polished as TED talks, though the best ones end up on TED.com. They can be gatherings of more than 1,000 people, or a few friends in a sparse room. But as is the case with TED, the most powerful events use multimedia, humor and audience interaction to make lectures about serious topics inspiring and easy to grasp.
Take Hans Rosling, a physician and a professor of international health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. He has spoken at both TED and at TEDx about economic development, health and poverty by narrating eye-catching animations of United Nations statistics as if he were a sportscaster at the Kentucky Derby.
On Monday he spoke at the Paley Center for Media in New York during TEDx Change, a conference organized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, about the progress of the global health goals set forth a decade ago by the United Nations.
Behind him was a large digital graph showing the relationship between child mortality and family size. A box of countries labeled “Western” had lower child mortality rates, while a box of countries labeled “Developing” had higher child mortality rates. Visualization software he developed (known as Trendalyzer) sent orbs representing various countries floating across the graph while time fast-forwarded from 1960 to today. Dr. Rosling spoke faster and faster, narrating what was happening as time flew by: “Now you get eradication of smallpox, better education, health services — There! China comes into the Western box here! And here Brazil is in the Western box! India’s approaching! The first African country’s coming into the Western box! And we get a lot of new neighbors. Welcome to a decent life!” (Video of the presentation is on the Gates Foundation’s Web site.)
If you think that was a unique way to enliven statistics, consider the 2007 TED talk at which Dr. Rosling wanted to show attendees that the seemingly impossible was possible — so he swallowed a sword.
“We rehearse and rehearse in my hotel room,” he said in the lobby of the Paley Center after his TEDxChange talk. “Twenty-five times.” (And that was for a sword-free lecture.) Then he reached into his breast pocket and flashed a reporter a Boy Scout-style sword swallower’s badge.
Also at TEDxChange was Mechai Viravaidya, a former senator in Thailand known as Mr. Condom. He shared his unusual tactics to teach Thai people about family planning and H.I.V. and AIDS prevention, including asking police officers to dole out condoms, organizing condom-inflating competitions and selling condoms and caffeine at a Coffee & Condom stall. Efforts like these helped new H.I.V. and AIDS infections in Thailand decline by 90 percent between 1991 and 2003, he said, saving millions of lives.
When Melinda French Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was asked what she hoped the people watching live via Webcast in 40 countries would take away from that particular TEDx event, she replied, “that change is possible.”
The first-ever TEDx was in March 2009 at the University of Southern California, organized by Krisztina Holly, vice provost for innovation at the University of Southern California and executive director of U.S.C.’s Stevens Institute for Innovation. She held a second event this year, selling out all 1,200 available seats and turning away hundreds of people.
“Students were just beating down the door wanting to sign up,” said Ms. Holly, who goes by “Z.” “We actually had a student write in his application that the whole reason the student came to U.S.C. was TEDx.”
Yet she pointed out that just a year ago, TEDx was a major risk because TED’s organizers had to relinquish control. On the other hand, TEDx is an example of a new model of business plans that harness fans of the brand to help it evolve.
Mr. Anderson agreed, though he said the looming questions were “How do you avoid damaging the TED brand? Can you package TED in a box?”
Apparently you can. A TEDx license is required to organize an event. The rules: recipients must not be associated with a controversial or extremist group, and cannot use TEDx to promote religious or political beliefs, or to sell commercial goods. There are also rules governing the event format, including that speakers must be filmed and that they don’t speak for more than 18 minutes each. TEDx organizers cannot charge for tickets, though TED makes some exceptions for groups that need help with production costs. Organizers who want to charge a fee (which can’t exceed $100) must seek permission from TED.
Today, TED executives are looking to the next phase of growth: leveraging TEDx as an educational tool.
“We know teachers are using the talks in classrooms,” said Lara Stein, TED’s licensing director. “What could we do to move that along?”
After all, as Mr. Anderson pointed out, the rise of online video means a teacher doesn’t have to be someone sitting in front of a classroom talking to 30 people. Especially if something like TEDx can make learning and social change “sexy,” as Ms. Kim of Ashoka put it.
“It’s an experience,” she said. “It’s not a lecture. It’s transformational. That’s why people like me are hooked.”