Engaging Students with Frontline and TED Talks

I once asked my 11th grade Math Analysis teacher how it was conceptually possible to take the limit of something as it approached infinity if infinity has no limit. She told me that I didn’t need to understand it conceptually, I only needed to be able to work the formula. So I did what she told me, received an “A” in the class, and decided that math just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t find the relevance in my high school math class to motivate me to stay interested in the subject.

We know that students (both young and old) are initially more engaged in learning when they find relevance in the subject matter. (You can read more about motivating students here.) While there is no substitute for an interesting and enthusiastic instructor, today’s professors have some easily accessible digital tools at their disposal that can potentially help to connect course subject matter with real world applications. Frontline and TED Talks are two of my favorites.



Frontline is a documentary series from PBS that explores a range of topics from foreign affairs and defense to health, science, and technology and more. Airing since 1983, Frontline now provides streaming links to over 150 full-length documentaries. They are free, and accessible by anyone with an Internet connection.

You can easily browse the documentaries by air date or by topic, and  the Frontline website includes a Teacher Center which provides lists of documentaries and associated resources by subject area. One of the things I really like about Frontline is that it updates “The Latest” developments for many of the existing subjects and documentaries. For example, Hunting the Nightmare, a documentary about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, aired on October 22, 2013.  Today, you’ll find the documentary and related resource materials, as well as this story about a startling bacteria outbreak in a Chicago hospital from January 8th, 2014. The documentaries themselves are engaging, and the updated Web resources and stories reinforce the relevance of the topic.

There are a couple of ways a Frontline documentary might be used instructionally.  If there’s a documentary related to a course reading, Frontline may serve as an out-of-class “viewing” assignment.  It’s easy to share a link to a Frontline documentary in a Blackboard course area (no sign in or account creation required). In English or media courses, student groups or pairs might view and analyze the claims and appeals presented in the film. (You can find a sample Frontline documentary critique assignment here). The Frontline documentaries are thoughtful and tough. If you find one related to your discipline, this can be a great starting point for engaging students in a subject with real world relevance. The Secret State of North Korea, To Catch a Trader, and an encore presentation of From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians are the most recently aired Frontline productions.

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TED Talks

By now, most of us have viewed at least a few TED talks. Started as a conference for folks interested in technology, entertainment, and design, TED talks now comprise nearly any and every subject. TED’s mission is to propagate “ideas worth spreading,” in 18 minute or less talks from anyone who has an idea to share. Last year, William & Mary hosted a TEDx event (TEDx is the local TED variant, which happen all over the world), showcasing 9 in-house speakers.

TED talks have become wildly popular. Sir Ken Robinson’s speech How Schools Kill Creativity is the most viewed TED talk, with over 20 million views.  I like to use Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration at the World Science Festival as a compelling example of how a short TED talk can engage a viewer in a subject area because

  1. at three minutes long I can find time to view it
  2. this is a subject for which I know absolutely nothing about — the pentatonic scale, and
  3. it’s an amazing demonstration about music, expectation, and the brain.
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Searching the TED Talks database is easy!

With over 1500 available talks, the TED website has become increasingly easy to search. TED talks can be easily shared by a link, and even easily embedded into a Blackboard course area or blog or webpage (the embed code is easier to grab than the link). Whether by length, or topic, or most viewed, students and faculty can search for talks relevant to their field of study, or for talks that are quick and inspiring.  TED has recently included playlists on their site, like The Future of Medicine, Adventures in Mapping, and The Dark Side of Data.

In addition to playlists, the TED talk site has created a site for educators to build and share lessons around certain subjects or talks at TED-Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing. Remember the anecdote I shared at the beginning of this post? (How can you possibly take the limit of something as it approaches infinity?)  Well, I just happened upon What is Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox at Ted-Ed, and finally, twenty plus years later, have a better conceptual understanding of this mathematical concept than I ever had while enrolled in Math Analysis. Many thanks to Ted-Ed. Ted-Ed provides a space for educators to curate, create, share, and borrow interesting lessons.

Instructors might choose to search for talks that are directly related to their discipline.  A TED talk could also serve as a way to engage students in a new theme or subject. My doctoral advisor, for example, used this talk on The Magic of Truth and Lies to engage us in a conversation about claims, logic, and argument at the start of a research seminar course. Taken a step further, students might be asked to analyze and critique the claims made in a discipline specific TED talk. Or, students might be asked to design and deliver an “idea worth sharing” in your content area as a potential class assignment in the style of TED. (A new genre, perhaps?)

And If You Don’t Have Time…

Creating a space for students to post and share links (like a shared wiki space) can be another strategy for facilitating student engagement and relevancy in your course. Offering students the opportunity to make connections between course content and real world application is often achieved through research, service learning projects, and travel abroad opportunities. However, providing a space for students to share or curate relevant digital content can be one way for to invite student voice and participation, particularly in general education and seminar courses that do not have already contain a research or service learning assignment.

About April Lawrence

April Lawrence is the Academic Technologist for the School of Education. A high school English teacher for ten years, April also worked in online course design and development before joining the AIS staff. April is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership at William & Mary. Her research interests include exploring the intersections of culture, technology integration, and learning.