Education and the Global Contest for Brains

Education and The Global Contest for Brains

May 10, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Cisco, the digital networking company, is currently running a TV ad that shows elementary school kids in the U.S. and those in China sharing an educational moment via widescreen telecasting.

That’s so last century.

There’s so much more happening in education these days than dedicated private TV networks.

Anyone who read the April 28 edition of the New York Times received a whole news section under the heading “Free and easy Downloadable Education.” And it wasn’t about no-name educational interlopers. No, the section pointed us toward uncounted thousands of Internet courses from MIT, the University of California, Yale, and others.

It’s all there for the taking. The classes that come with $25,000 and up tuition price tags if you attend them on campus can be downloaded free. That’s F-R-E-E.

But isn’t everyone too busy twittering to bother with all of this stuffy stuff? Apparently not. The Times describes a University of California class (Biology 131) that’s been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube. In December, ITunes U surpassed the 100 million download mark with courses it hosts.

Here’s another surprising piece of information from the Times article: 69% of those downloading Yale courses are independent learners, not associated with any school or program—-just people interested in learning the subject matter. This seems to be the pattern for all school programs. Only a small percentage of users are other professors, trying to check out the competition or pick up new ideas.

(check below for a few free courseware sites)

You seldom see or hear about it in the news, but we’re in the midst of a worldwide educational revolution. And it undoubtedly will have more impact on the decades just ahead than any of the other “revolutions” we’re experiencing today.

Try this for a frame of reference.

Estimates are that in the 1800s hardly 1% of the world’s population could read. That was the century in which the U.S. led the world toward a system of compulsory education for children.

Today the UN estimates that only one out of five adults worldwide is illiterate. Stated another way, fewer adults are illiterate today than there were when UN tracking began back in 1957—even though world population has doubled since then. Think of it. During the past 50 years more than 3 billion people have become literate. And the trend is accelerating.

China, which had little that could pass for a modern educational system 50 years ago, will graduate 600,000 engineers this year from its own universities. The University of Hawaii’s East West Center is training 10,000 Chinese to become school principals. And Chinese education has become so attractive that for the first time this year more foreign students are studying in China than the Chinese are sending abroad.

China recognizes what’s at stake in a knowledge-rich world. It’s making huge investments in building what it hopes will be world-class universities. A lot of other countries are also aspiring to be in the big leagues of education. Here’s the vision statement of Singapore’s National University:

“NUS will be a globally-oriented university, in the distinguished league of the world’s leading universities. A key node in global knowledge networks, NUS will have distinctive expertise and insights relating to Asia.”

Ben Wildavsky, a journalist and scholar at Brookings, has compiled some serious research about all this and published it in a new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World.

Nations we’ve never considered to be fountainheads of learning are running hard to catch up. And in doing it, they’re following the model of the multi-national corporations, importing brains, talent and know-how from those who have it. There’s hardly a major U.S. or British university that doesn’t have something going, somewhere on a foreign campus.

One example: Northwestern University and Carnegie Mellon both have branches at Qatar’s shiny new university, which also happens to the region’s first co-educational university. Another example: Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s campus is being shared by Cornell, Stanford, Texas A&M and Oxford.

U.S. universities lead everyone’s rankings as the best in the world and house 70% of the Nobel Prize winners for advanced research. U.S. schools continue to be magnets for top students from all continents. But it’s clear from Wildavsky’s study that the competition is getting more aggressive.

You can look at this positively, for how it should raise aspirations and living standards around the world and contribute to the pool of human knowledge. And you also can look at this with concern. As Wildavsky points out, in the late 19th century Americans flocked to Germany which had he first modern research universities. Now, little more than 100 years later, the quality of Germany’s universities has plummeted – and its schools are copying the U.S. model.

The X factor is how technology is changing knowledge and education, making it accessible even to those who attend no university. When today’s grade schoolers reach university age, will bricks and mortar institutions be as important as they are today? Will the new kids on the block even been training for jobs we can barely envision? Who would have thought 15 years ago that a person could make a living in an area such as search technology?

In all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. If the U.S. is going to keep up in the knowledge race it has to continue supporting the system that took us to the top. Not just so we can keep chanting, “we’re number one!” but so that we can continue to thrive in this world economic environment and the ones a few years down the road that no one can foresee.

**A few web sites where you can download educational courses: , connexions , Opencourseware Consorium , ITunes U and

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


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