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Thomas Friedman on Competition, Common Core, and the Surge of MOOCs

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman doesn’t write about education, as such. He writes about power and about changes on a global level.

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EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place in May. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. The majority of the content will soon be available at EdMedia Commons. Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is today’s guest blogger.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman doesn’t write about education, as such. He writes about power and about changes on a global level.

But he told the audience at EWA’s National Seminar that education is just a few simple steps away from his focus. Here’s how: A key force in global power is economic growth, he said. And a key driver of economic growth is education.

“Traveling around the world, education is the biggest foreign policy issue,” he said.

In the “hyper-connected” world we have today, he said, everyone is competing against everyone else in the world. Everyone has access to the best software, resources and people, making anyone that is just average irrelevant in the marketplace.

“The whole global curve just rose,” he said.

Friedman, best known to the general public for his 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat, resurrected parts of his standard book tour speech as he took questions from Wall Street Journal education reporter Stephanie Banchero while they both sat on the stage throughout.

Banchero praised him in her introduction for his ability to connect education, growth and economic sustainability. For an hour, she asked for his perspective on what holds America back on the global stage, what prevents education from adapting to its new challenges, the future of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and if he sees any similar disruptive forces on the horizon for K-12 education.

Friedman drew on themes from the new book he co-authored in 2011 called That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, saying that the United States missed an opportunity when the Cold War ended. America rested, he said, letting its guard down after a long and costly struggle.

But for the rest of the world, he said, that was the starting gun. Markets and opportunities opened up, with millions of individuals seizing the chance to compete with Americans.

Nations are also more focused on competing too, he said, so that every nation – not just the United States – is concerned about where it stands educationally compared to other countries.

Even places that score better than the United States on some tests, he said, have debates about whether they teach the right mix of things.

Friedman said the world has changed so much since he wrote The World is Flat that a success like Facebook does not even appear in that book. In that time, whole new companies and professions have arisen – search engine optimization, for example – and the need to keep learning throughout life, to adapt and invent your own job has become more crucial than ever.

Friedman praised the imminent Common Core standards. He said that beyond raising expectations of students, having multiple states using the same standards will allow programmers to write materials that serve a broader audience instead of the fractured one now.

“You’re going to see a huge amount of innovation coming off the Common Core,” he predicted.

In keeping with the conference’s theme of “Innovation in Education and the Media,” and in keeping with the setting – Stanford is the birthplace of MOOC powers Udacity and Coursera – Friedman spoke at length about them.

“This is the beginning of a real revolution,” he said.

He said that MOOCs are still in a comparable stage to the computer businesses that started in the garages of innovators. But they are already catching on. He said Coursera had about 260,000 students when he wrote a column about it last year. It now has three million.

He predicted a time in the near future where the top teachers in a subject will put their classes online, students in schools will use them and their teachers will be able to give more direct help to students in the classroom. Friedman expects this change for K-12 students, as well as college students most MOOCs are aimed at now.

Friedman said that the cost of a traditional college experience is beginning to cripple students financially, while also failing to provide the fast-changing skills that employers seek. Cheaper, more focused and easily updated MOOCs could be the answer. He predicted that MOOCs and industry will eventually find a way for completion of MOOCs to provide the credentials employers need, instead of a traditional degree.

“This is coming,” Friedman said. It’s going to be huge. Ignore this revolution at your own peril.