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Talking Polio, Education at TED

I was excited to get the chance to serve as a guest “curator” at TED for this year’s annual conference in California in March. In TED parlance, that means I’ll be the person inviting and hosting the speakers for one session. Harvard scientist Juan Enriquez is also being invited to lead a session. TED has a reputation – well deserved – for bringing together really interesting and provocative speakers. So, to get the chance to put together a session was a great opportunity. When Chris Anderson suggested it, I was happy to accept.

People who read the Gates Notes won’t be too surprised by some of the people I’ve invited. Amina Az-Zubair, the Nigerian educator and development expert, will come from Abuja, Nigeria, to be part of the session. She is the country’s lead advocate for implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs. I know Amina well because of her work on the advisory board of the foundation’s Global Development program. She is an articulate advocate for the poor, and brings a wealth of experience – and optimism – about Africa. She should be riveting.

Also from the southern hemisphere is one of my favorite educators, David Christian. I got to be a fan of his through watching his groundbreaking course, Big History, on DVDs I got from Teach12. David’s approach brings together multiple studies – history, economics, cosmology, anthropology and biology, just to name a few – which he weaves into a compelling and understandable story that takes students from the Big Bang through today. I was struck by how powerful this could be as a way to turn more kids on to science and better understand our past and present. David is a remarkable teacher and I’ve been working with him over the last year to see how Big History could be made available to more students than it is today, something we'll be talking about soon. It’s a growing movement, and I think people will be fascinated to experience a short dose of Big History taught by so capable a teacher.

As one of our most important priorities, our foundation has been working with the World Health Organization and other partners (like Rotary) on polio eradication for the last several years, and I’ve invited Bruce Aylward, who directs WHO’s polio eradication initiative, to come to TED to talk about why it's important and what it will take to eliminate polio once and forever. We’re very close, with the disease persisting in really only four countries today. We’ve eliminated 99 percent of the cases worldwide, and we have this last short distance to go. It’s not going to be easy, but Bruce’s energy and commitment to polio eradication make him a great person to invite to TED to speak about what might be possible, if we can sustain this last effort through to success.

Finally, I’m asking one of my favorite educators to speak about the future of education, and how technology can radically change and improve the teaching our kids receive. I’ve written and spoken about Sal Khan many times, and have been a power-user (along with my kids) of his online lessons at Khan Academy. Sal started out helping his younger cousins with some difficulties they were having with their math classes by using online videos. Today, his Khan Academy has over 1,800 videos posted, covering everything from basic arithmetic to economic theories, with over 35 million lessons delivered. Even more exciting is the development of online teaching aids and tools for students and teachers that complement this incredible video library. Sal’s personal contribution to education is having an impact around the world. His TED session should be stimulating and provocative, as someone who is rethinking how we can educate our kids in the best possible way.

There may be a couple of surprises thrown in for good measure. One of the cool things about TED is that the talks will all be available online soon after the conference. I’m looking forward to TED more than ever this year.

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