Vast amounts of scientific knowledge were generated and numerous technological advancements were achieved during the 20th Century. In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler (1971) noted that "On a worldwide basis, scientific and technical literature mounts at a rate of some 60,000,000 pages a year" (p. 31). He goes on to add that the computer ". . . has become a major force behind the latest acceleration in knowledge-acquisition" (Toffler, 1971, p. 31). All indications are that the pace of knowledge generation has certainly not diminished during the first few years of the 21st Century. With the base of researchers around the world growing in numbers in various disciplines, and the never-ending advances in technology, knowledge will definitely continue to grow at an even faster pace.
Trained Researchers Responsible for Knowledge Growth
Much of the knowledge generated during the 20th Century was the result of the dedicated work of well-educated researchers who completed their research training in institutions of higher learning while earning advanced masters and/or doctoral degrees. After earning their advanced degrees and training in research, many of these graduates continued to pursue their research efforts in laboratories both in and outside of academia, thus contributing to the ongoing growth of knowledge in various disciplines and professions.
Need for Renewing Licenses
The enormous growth of knowledge has many consequences for education, training, and practice in various disciplines and professions, one of which is the need to re-educate professionals on a continuous basis. In many areas, practicing professional are required to upgrade their knowledge every so often, in order to be able to renew their license and continue to practice their profession. For example, medicine is one profession whose practitioners have to demonstrate that they have upgraded their knowledge and skills before their licenses are renewed.
Opposite Trends in Higher Education
As knowledge continues to grow at faster and faster rates, it would seem logical to assume that students in institutions of higher education need to spend additional amounts of time to learn such knowledge and earn their advanced degrees. However, universities that are trying to compete with their peer institutions for students tuition monies are moving in the opposite direction and are beginning to cut the number of course credit hours or semester hours that students need in order to earn their advanced degrees. The current trends in some universities emboldens me to state that most universities will soon start emulating fast food restaurants and offer students the option of earning degrees their way. Students will soon be able to earn personalized degrees based on their preferences and ask universities to hold the mustard—I mean hold the math, or science, or some other content area coursework that they do not much care about, or are unable to pass.
I sometimes wonder if universities are doing an academic version of the limbo dance and are trying to determine how low can we go? If one university reduces the number of courses or credit hours needed to graduate, others might do the same and also do away with the GRE requirements for admission into the program. This will trigger additional responses from another institution such as admitting students with low GPAs, or allowing students to transfer in more course credits that were completed at another college or university, and giving credit for life experiences. While the limbo dance (or is it the limbo war?) may offer short-term solutions for universities that are eager to attract graduate students, by bringing in more students into advanced degree programs, in the long run the value of advanced degrees offered by American universities will go down. Good students will, in the future, go to other countries that offer rigorous and respected graduate degrees. American universities will have to invent new dances in the future to attract graduate students.
Another trend that I am seeing is that some universities are offering doctoral degrees to students without requiring them to complete an original dissertation that adds to the existing knowledge base in the discipline. In some universities, instead of completing a rigorous dissertation, students can earn their doctorates by complete a capstone project or some other supposedly scholarly project. I predict that most universities will soon start offering students the option of completing a dissertation or some other project that will be included under the presumptuous label "Other Rigorous Scholarly Options" (ORSO).
Repeat Customers Help Corporations Stay profitable
A corporation continues to succeed and be profitable if it is able to attract new customers and if current customers keep coming back to purchase more of its products and services. For example, some software companies continue to thrive because customers often upgrade to newer releases of the software products that they originally purchased. As technology advances, the software company continues to develop its software packages to make them better than previous versions of the same software packages, and release upgraded version of these software packages. These upgrades which supposedly have newer and more advanced features keep the consumers coming back. I understand that this is a rather simplistic explanation of what goes on in real life, but the point I am trying to make is that the success of some corporations depends on their ability to keep their customers coming back for more.
Upgradeable Products or Certificates and Degrees Offered at Universities
Universities too have their own versions of upgradeable products such as certificates, and bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. Many students who earn their bachelors degree from a university go on to earn their masters degrees either from the same university or from a different university. A few of those who earn a masters degree go on to earn their doctoral degrees. Although some universities in other countries offer degrees such as a D.Sc., which is considered higher than a Ph.D., the doctoral degree or the Ph.D., or one of its many variants, is the highest earnable degree in most universities in the United States of America. Students generally cannot upgrade their degrees beyond the doctoral degree.
Use It or Lose It
Due to the pace at which knowledge is growing, even people who are considered experts sometimes find it hard to keep up with recent developments in some fields. The knowledge base of those who earn advanced degrees becomes obsolete quite soon if they do not keep current in their areas of specialization. Two of the best ways to keep up with developments in a discipline are either to teach advanced courses or to conduct research in the discipline. Research and teaching are usually expected of faculty members in most universities. However, Edward O. Wilson (1998), in his book "Consilience" states:
... More than half the Ph.D.s in science are stillborn, dropping out of original research after at most one or two publications" (Wilson, 1998: 56).
If this is true in other disciplines as well, then there are a large number of people out there who are not putting their degrees to work. Since a sizeable proportion of the holders of advanced degrees seem to be not using their research training to first keep up with and then generate additional knowledge in their fields, it can be argued that they and their degrees are pretty much becoming obsolete at least at a rate equal to the rate at which new knowledge is generated in their disciplines.
I mentioned earlier that one of the consequences of knowledge explosion is the need to renew professional licenses. The same argument can be made to all undergraduate and graduate degrees. I don't know who first proposed the brilliant idea of granting renewable degrees, and I am pretty sure that someone has proposed such an idea sometime in the past, but I think that the time has come to start implementing the idea. A small microchip, receiver, transmitter, microphone that can be turned off at the discretion of the degree holder and activated when necessary by the college or university, and a display unit can be embedded in all diplomas granted by colleges and universities in the future. The display will be programmed to show when the degree expires. The person who earns the degree can periodically submit proof, along with the required renewal processing fee, to the university to demonstrate that he or she has been using the knowledge and skills learned while completing the coursework that was required to earn his or her degree. Such proof can be in the form of research papers published, presentations at conferences, teaching in the discipline, consulting experience in the discipline, or research grants received, additional coursework completed or continued employment in jobs that require use of the expertise developed while earning the degree. If the degree holder does not submit the required proof in time, the transmitter embedded in the diploma will send a signal to the college or university. The appropriate official will initiate the process to send a signal back to the diploma and the display unit will proclaim to the world in text, audio and video that the diploma has expired. Universities and students can negotiate the nature of proof that is required and how frequently such proof should be submitted by the students, in order to be able to renew their degrees. Once the required proof is submitted, the designated staff members in the Office of the Registrar, Records and Degree Renewal (or some similar office in a the college or university that granted the degree) can send a wireless and encrypted signal to the receiver in the diploma. The diploma will then display its new expiration date.
In my humble opinion, renewable degrees will keep students going back to schools for it is probably much easier to complete a course or two every few years instead of having to conduct original research is a discipline. Like successful corporations, universities that begin to offer renewable degrees will thrive. Not only will universities flourish, but the degrees will also be valued highly by all concerned.
Toffler, Alvin. (1971). Future Shock. New York: Bantam Books.
Wilson, Edward O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
About the Author
M.O. Thirunarayanan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of learning technologies in the College of Education and also a Fellow of the Honors College at Florida International University, in Miami, Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in 1990 from Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona.