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Silfen University Forum 2013 Credit: nick moncy , Elizabeth Schwartz

In a piece earlier this year, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote of online education that “nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Over the past year, Friedman — a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner — has authored several columns on massive open online courses, arguing that they represent the future of higher education across the globe.

On Friday, he took some time after the Silfen University Forum to speak to The Daily Pennsylvanian about MOOCs.

Daily Pennsylvanian: You’ve now spoken at several conferences on massive open online courses, and on how MOOCs can and will have a global impact. What specifically about the topic of online education draws your interest?

Thomas Friedman: Well, it fits in perfectly with my column. What my column is really about is the sources of power — discussing the things that will make us a stronger, healthier and more equal country so we can play the role we’re capable of playing. You can’t think about how to make America strong and healthy without thinking about education, which is the foundation for knowledge and innovation, as a way to close income gaps and make us a more equal and just society.

DP: You wrote the following in a recent Times column: “We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency … and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency.” Do you see MOOCs as having the potential to produce a generation with this necessary competency?

TF: Yes, I think they certainly have that potential. Right now, though, I think there are two things still missing in a really comprehensive way related to that question. The first is developing some sort of metric system to measure whether people are really learning in these MOOCs, and the second is coming up with a way to certify that students have mastered the knowledge, even though many are taking the courses in some remote place. If I were a young Penn student looking for a business to go into, this is what I would be exploring.

Those are the two things that I think haven’t quite been nailed down yet, but I think they will be, and once they are I think MOOCs will really take off.

DP: Do you see the role of the in-person teacher or faculty member being diminished in any way as online education continues to gain traction?

TF: Other than parents, there’s no more vital role in our society than that of teachers, and I don’t think MOOCs can in any way replace them. What they will do is enable us to improve the teaching talents of our very best teachers, and at the same time I think they will encourage other teachers to develop their pedagogy and teaching methods.

Whether you’re an all-star professor of a MOOC with 100,000 students or someone still just teaching 16 kids in a classroom at Penn, there is no replacing a great teacher who can work one-on-one with a student to help them overcome difficulties or to inspire them. I see MOOCs always complementing teaching. They may change the teaching business in time, and surely they will. Technology has changed the journalism business, but it hasn’t replaced journalism, and MOOCs won’t replace teachers.

DP: Speaking of journalism, what do you think traditional higher-education institutions would be wise to learn based on what’s happened to the media industry over the past decade?

TF: What happened to our industry is that it went through a radical democratization process, where smaller voices and news outlets came out of nowhere to achieve global scale. I think it can be argued that the same thing is happening to higher education.

You may think you have an unassailable brand that nobody can challenge. Take the Ivy League, for example. We were once the Ivy League of journalism — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune — but once an industry gets flattened and goes through this process of democratization, you may be shocked to see what kind of creative alternatives can emerge.

The Washington Post had a great politics department, but one day they all walked out the door and started Politico. One day the politics department at Penn could walk out the door and start an organization called “Penn Global,” and anybody who wanted to take a politics course could just come to them. I’m not making any predictions about academia, but my rule has always been that of a flat world — whatever can be done will be done. The only question is whether it will be done by you or to you, but just don’t think it won’t be done. That’s really dangerous.

DP: Which Coursera courses have you taken personally, and have you ever had a desire to teach a Coursera course?

TF: I’ve looked at all of these platforms — Coursera, Udacity and edX — and have been following the MOOCs industry before they were even called MOOCs. I’ve never had time to take a course from start to finish, but I’ve certainly thought of teaching one on how to write a column. That would be fun one day.

DP: Let’s say that there’s a Coursera course created on the history of China, and one of the lectures happens to be on Tiananmen Square — or any other topic that the Chinese government wouldn’t allow to be circulated from an educational standpoint in the country. What role do you think American institutions have when it comes to potential academic freedom issues that might arise with these Coursera courses?

TF: I think that there has to be no compromise. I know that an institution like Penn would never tailor a course on Asian history so that the lectures or chapters on Tiananmen Square were edited out so that they could appear in China. The Chinese will have to adjust, and in many ways students there will find ways around the system.

Any time you have a global platform like we do at The New York Times, there can be no compromise. Sometimes that may mean you lose out on a market, but I think you have to really stick to your guns and make sure this is built under your values, not anybody else’s.

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