May 25, 2016

TED – an “idea worth spreading” in the classroom

Posted by Laura Guertin

A 2015 study by SAGE Publications showed that 68 percent of students watch educational videos in class and 79 percent watch them voluntarily outside of class. When asked why they watched educational videos, 63.4% of the students responded it was because the professor played them during class. What videos are faculty playing and students watching on their own? Odds are, some of those videos include TED talks.

TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to showcasing “ideas worth spreading” through talks that are 18 minutes or less. The talks are given at local-to-international conferences and uploaded to their website ( and YouTube. Transcripts are provided for each TED talk, as well as the option for speakers to provide footnotes and a reading list (see an example with Michael Bodekaer’s 2015 talk, This virtual lab will revolutionize science class). Geared more for K-12 teachers, there is the TED-Ed platform ( that has entire lessons developed around existing TED talks and newly-created animations that answer topical questions (for example, see, How do solar panels work?).

I use the occasional TED talk with my students, especially in my online oceanography course. The video imagery included in TED talks from coral reefs to hydrothermal vents is important for students to see, and is a resource that is challenging to otherwise bring to students in an online course. The students are able to hear from the biggest names in our discipline. I want them to see the “personalities” of scientists and to hear their passion for our oceans – Sylvia Earle, David Gallo, Robert Ballard, etc. Yes, some oceanography-themed TED talks are a little more “show and tell” about our oceans than a “deep dive” into the science content, but there are also challenging topics that make students really think – take a look at Gavin Schmidt’s “The emergent patterns of climate change” and have your students discuss what it means for a climate model to be “skillful.”



Some subject areas are available in the TED video library more than others. Oceanography, space science, food sustainability, climate science – all are well represented in TED talks. Geoscience? Not-so-much, save for a small collection of dinosaur talks. So don’t look to use TED videos to replace content instruction. Perhaps “the best use of TED Talks in the classroom… takes advantage of that “percolation of ideas.” Talks work best when teachers use them to give perspective and to generate discussion around difficult topics.”(Cucinotta, 2014).

Not everyone embraces all that a TED talk has to offer. Some feel that TED talks are “oversimplifying very smart topics” – there’s even a TEDx talk online addressing What’s wrong with TED talks? Some people are concerned about the pseudo-science being spread and older videos/content may only spread confusion (see John Hawks Weblog). Others question if you can share something worthwhile in 18 minutes. Chris Anderson, curator of TED, answers definitively, unequivocally yes. He states in The Guardian that the Gettysburg address made history in a ninth of that time, and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech lasted only sixteen minutes. He certainly doesn’t claim that any TED talk offers all there is to know on any topic, but that one can learn enough to get excited about knowing more. For me, this is the “spark” I want to see in my non-science majors in my introductory-level courses – getting excited and wanting to learn more.

If anyone is thinking about doing their own TED talk, there is a video available about how to do a TED talk (“TED’s secret to great public speaking“). But if you think a TED talk will help make your research famous, think again… Sugimoto et al. (2013) found that although TED popularizes research, it may not promote the work of scientists within the academic community. And if you are concerned about the types of comments you may get on the TED website about your talk, Tsou et al. (2014) found that commenters were more likely to engage with the talk content on the TED website, while commenters would discuss the characteristics of a presenter on YouTube.


Do you have any TED talks you like to share & discuss with your students? Please enter them in the comments field below!



Additional sources for exploration

Bohrman, T. (2010, May 9). Who is TED, and Why Can’t I Talk for More Than 18 Minutes at a Time? The Journal of Sustainability Education. Available at:

Cucinotta, O. (2014, August 26). How teachers can best use TED Talks in class, from the perspective of a student. TED Blog. Available at:

Fisher, J. (2014, November 21). Thinking of giving a TEDx-style talk? Do it – but with plenty of preparation! The Plainspoken Scientist: AGU Blogosphere. Available at:

Rossbacher, L. (2014, December 27). Geologic Column: What geoscientists can learn from TED Talks. EARTH Magazine. Available at:

Ruff, C. (2016, May 10). The TEDification of the large lecture. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at:

Tsou, A., Thelwall, M., Mongeon, P., Sugimoto, C.R. (2014). A community of curious souls: an analysis of commenting behavior on TED talks videos. PLoS ONE 9(4):e93609. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093609 Available at:

Sugimoto, C.R., Thelwall, M., Larivière, V., Tsou, A., Mongeon, P., Macaluso, B. (2013). Scientists Popularizing Science: Characteristics and Impact of TED Talk Presenters. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62403. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062403 Available at: