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TED talks embraced as a learning platform in China

The burgeoning TEDx events in China are no passing fad, given the huge needs of learning and sharing, notes author.

Last Modified: 24 Apr 2013 12:18
Yunqian Wang

Yunqian Wang is a master graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, major in intercultural communication. Currently she works as a news editor in NYC. She specializes in web development and online communication, with particular focus on civil society and civic media.
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"In the near future, the interaction between TED and education will be more dynamic: TED videos will be leveraged by teachers as course materials, just like what is happening in many other countries," writes author [EPA]

I was stunned after seeing the promotion video of TEDxShanghai 2012, with hundreds of people wearing Chinese traditional black suites and gathering in front of the Shanghai Concert Hall. With the theme of "I am a Chinese", the event pulled together 27 speakers to share their stories about their "Chineseness".

It was quite a thrill for me to see TED finally making a splash in my hometown, being embraced by the people who pine for knowledge and inspiration like me. Four years ago, when I began to follow TED Talks and became obsessed with it, nobody around me was talking about it.

The first TED talk I ever watched was Liz Coleman's "Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education". The talk, although filmed only in 18 minutes, resonated with me so deeply that I felt an impulse to share. I then volunteered for TEDtoChina project, translating TED talks while also getting inspired from those spectacular ideas.

As Richard Hsu, the organiser of TEDxShanghai 2012, claimed:

"It's interesting how TED is very different in China and Asia to what it is in the West. In its place of origin, TED was never looked at as a platform for learning; it was always a platform for ideas, but the rest of the world looks at it as a platform for learning. It teaches, it's inspiring, it's accelerating."

Explore TED as a global classroom

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, launched in 1984, is a worldwide public gathering, where some of very best minds from all walks come and share the cutting-edge knowledge in their fields. What distinguishes TED conference from others is its unique rule - all the speakers should finish their presentations within 18 minutes.

TED started out as an exclusive dinner party of spectacular leaders and ended up with an open gathering of radical thinkers and doers. Chris Anderson, the point person behind TED who champions the idea of "radical openness", has made deliberate attempts in opening up TED to a broad audience. In 2006, he changed TED to not-for-profit and made all TED talk videos free online under the Creative Commons licence.

Coincide with the open educational resource (OER) movement, which advocates for freely accessible, openly licensed material that are useful for teaching, learning and other educational purpose, Chris Anderson also envisioned TED as a global classroom.

It is widely recognised that MIT spearhead a global wave of OER movement when it initiated its OpenCourseWare project in 2012 and put its entire course catalogue online. Other initiatives such as China Open Resources for Education and OpenCourseWare in Japan all derived from MIT OpenCourseWare. In the same year, TED unveiled its TED-Ed Initiative, which intended to develop an online archive filled with tools and best practices for teachers to use.

Anya Kamenetz, a well-known writer in the education field, made some big claims after a comparison between TED and traditional universities. "I would go so far as to argue that TED is creating a new Harvard." She argued that TED actually manifests itself in many ways as a top university, and contended that in the age of information overflow, to curate new and original lectures, to invest in the technological infrastructure and to build up a robust network of free-access resources should be on top of universities' agenda.

Kamenetz's argument, although catchy and strong, might have overlooked an instrumental part of higher education- the critical thinking and the interaction between students and professors. Merely scratching the surface of an 18-minute talk is like eating instant noodles, from which you get satisfaction, but receive little nutrition.

Develop TEDtoChina as an education project

In 2008, TEDtoChina, an independent TED tribute project that aims to distribute TED talks to Chinese audience was rolling out. Boosted by local TED fans, TEDtoChina built up a vibrant China TED community via both its online presence and offline outreach. 

In its place of origin, TED was never looked at as a platform for learning; it was always a platform for ideas, but the rest of the world looks at it as a platform for learning.

Richard Hsu, organiser of TEDxShanghai 2012

When the co-founders kicked off the project at the very beginning, they knew where they were heading for: "It's an education project, not a translation project." Oliver Ding, one of theTEDtoChina co-founders, elaborated on the current problems with education in China and how TEDtoChina fits into the big picture to tackle the problem:

"The inequality in education and the uneven distribution of education resources are remarkable in current China, which is closely related with the unequal economic development across different regions. A lack of educational attainment has plagued many students in 2nd and 3rd tier universities, preventing them from acquiring the necessary adaptability, creativity and imagination to perform in a world characterised by rapidly developing technology and a global view."

Therefore, the successful dissemination of TED concept in China justifies a shortage of creativity and sharing attitude in current China, as well as a lust for knowledge and inspirations.

Concurring with the launch of TEDtoChina, the fourth Chinese Blogger Conference has drawn attention of a bunch of educators concerning about open education resources.They hammered out a manifesto, also known as EduAnn2018, which discussed in details about how to improve education in China in the next decade. A prominent theme emerged from the discussion was a keen advocate for open knowledge, free sharing and a joint effort by educational institutions and society to increase educational opportunities in China.

Tailor TEDx events to learning purpose

TEDx events are spin-off TED conferences that are independently organised at the local level. Local communities are allowed to use TED brand under certain guidelines and aggregate local resources.

The first TEDx in Mainland China was launched on the campus of San Yet-san University. The next day, anther TEDx was put on at a public space in Shanghai. These two TEDx events actually set the tone for later events in China - all the TEDx afterwards were being held either on campus or among public places of a city.

To date, hundreds of TEDx events have sprung up across the country, though most of the events are still confined to big cities. Tony Yet, the co-founder of TEDtoChina, described what a typical TEDx looks like:

"Those who take their dream seriouslycome here, getting a glimpse of what is happing globally and pondering on what can be drawn upon locally."

Yvette Wang, an organiser of the TEDxTheGardenBridge, a women-focused event held last October in Shanghai, noticed that since the TEDx University took place in 2010, interest among students surged:  

"Young people are more curious about the outside world, they are looking for meaning, they are looking for purpose in life and TEDx gives them so much rich content. The ideas focus on social problems right now and philosophy questions we don't really mention in our schools, and we think that young people really like it because they can learn something and it's quick."

The burgeoning TEDx events in China are no passing fad, given the huge needs of learning and sharing. Meanwhile, TEDx also began to partner with other projects with similar vision or mission. For example, they joined hands with 1kg.org and brought TEDx1KG event to students in rural schools. "If the children are not able to go out, we will invite the world in," the organisers stated.

Predictably, in the near future, the interaction between TED and education will be more dynamic: TED videos will be leveraged by teachers as course materials, just like what ishappening in many other countries. And hopefully, more and more Chinese will keep up with the global perspective and brush up their knowledge when the rest of the world is keeping a closer eye on them.

Yunqian Wang is web news editor at SinoVision. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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