Imagine you’re a high school biology teacher searching for the most vivid way to explain electrical activity in the brain. How about inserting metal wires into a cockroach’s severed leg and making that leg dance to music?
Starting Monday, that eye-popping lesson, performed in a six-minute video by neuroscientist and engineer Greg Gage, is available free online.
TED, a nonprofit organization that produces a popular annual conference on ideas, is launching TED-Ed, an online collection of lessons it hopes will bring the best educators to any classroom with an Internet connection.
“Right now there’s a teacher somewhere out there delivering a mind-altering lesson and the frustrating thing is, it only reaches the students in that class,” said TED-Ed project director Logan Smalley. “We’re trying to figure out how to capture that lesson and pair it with professional animators to make that lesson more vivid and put it in a place where teachers all over the world can share it.”
TED-Ed is the latest wave in a growing trend of free online education. With offerings from the Khan Academy, founded in 2004 when Salman Khan began posting math tutorials on YouTube, and undergraduate courses from prestigious universities such as Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, free classes and lectures are proliferating on the Web.
But much of that content consists of sequential lectures delivered by an instructor behind a podium or, in the case of Khan, a disembodied voice narrating math equations on an electronic blackboard.
TED-Ed, by contrast, is using sophisticated animation, professional editing and high-quality production values to produce online lessons that are hard to forget. And the lessons don’t meander — each is no longer than 10 minutes.
The project does not provide a sequential curriculum but rather aims to provoke students and their teachers toward further exploration, the creators said. “We want to show that learning can be thrilling,” said TED curator Chris Anderson.
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, already maintains a vast library of free video talks from its annual conference aimed at adults, and it knows the magnifying effect of the Internet video. The site maintains about 1,100 videos at www.ted.com, which have been viewed more than 700 million times since the site was launched in 2006. The roster of hundreds of speakers includes many well-known figures such as Bill Clinton and the late Steve Jobs. But most were toiling in obscurity before TED put them in the spotlight.
Smalley points to the example of Hans Rosling, a Swedish expert in global health. Rosling estimates that in 40 years of lecturing and writing, his work reached about a million people. But Rosling has given eight TED talks over the past four years, which have been viewed about 6 million times, Smalley said.
“I’m really excited about this project because TED is such a good platform,” said Gage, the neuroscientist, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He and a colleague, Tim Marzullo, perform neuroscience experiments in classrooms around Michigan and sell basic equipment through a Web site, Backyardbrains.com.
Gage said he wants the TED-Ed video to show teachers that they can conduct similar neuroscience experiments in their classrooms. “We hope people see this and realize that it’s really easy to do,” he said. “And that it’ll be a launching point for other experiments about the brain.”
Advertising is barred from the videos, and teachers appearing in them are not permitted to use them for commercial purposes. YouTube, which will host the videos, does carry some advertising. But if the video is shown via YouTube for Schools, a special network setting that restricts access to include only educational videos, no advertising will appear, according to Annie Baxter, a spokeswoman for YouTube.
Initially, TED-Ed lessons will be geared toward high school and college students and “life learners,” Smalley said.
The first batch of about a dozen videos are available Monday and will grow to about 300 within a year, Smalley said. TED-Ed is inviting educators and animators to submit ideas for lessons and will select and produce them, he said. The public can also nominate talented educators, Smalley said.
Teachers will not be paid for their ideas or for recording lessons for the videos.
Subjects are likely to include standard high school subjects such as math, science, social studies and English, but TED-Ed is open to unusual topics as well, Smalley said. “We’ll make sure it’s an even offering across traditional subjects, but we also want to offer things that aren’t taught in school but potentially should be,” he said.
Next month, TED-Ed will roll out a new Web site that will offer materials to teachers that are related to the videos, such as lesson plans and assignments. Teachers will be able to insert questions for their students into the videos and send their students links to annotated videos, a spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman declined to discuss the budget for TED-Ed, except to say that the venture was a multimillion-dollar project.
Nearly 100 percent of U.S. public schools have access to the Internet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That compares with just 35 percent in 1994.