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The seekers

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2001 | BY M. O. Thirunarayanan 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Today's students are more likely to be looking for certification and degrees than for knowledge.

Students in modern societies can be classified into three groups, namely the "certification seekers," the "degree seekers," and the "knowledge seekers." The certification seekers are those students who prepare for and pass one exam after the other and obtain a series of certifications that prepare them for a variety of jobs in the field of information technology. Students in this category generally begin their careers performing trivial technological tasks and move up the ladder into more important positions after they obtain more and more certifications. As an example, a "certification seeker" might start his or her career laying the cables that connect computers on a network, and then gradually, with the aid of additional certifications obtained over a period of time, move up the ranks to become the network administrator for a large corporation. Irrespective of the jobs that they perform, one thing that separates this group of students from the others is the fact that the careers of this group of students are based on certifications.

The second groups of students are those that I call the "degree seekers." These are probably people who are employed, but find themselves stuck in positions beyond which they cannot advance without obtaining advanced degrees. They could also be the "certification seekers" who are currently unemployed due to changes in market conditions. Or they could be recent high school graduates who are employed in entry-level positions and who need degrees to advance in the future. Many of the non-traditional "degree seekers" are savvy consumers who know how to get the most for the money that they spend. Some of them will be paying their own way through college. Employers will pick up the tabs for the education of many of the degree-seeking students. One thing that characterizes this diverse group of students is this: they wish to obtain degrees, and obtaining degrees is their primary goal. Learning is secondary to obtaining a degree.

The demand for higher degrees and diplomas is increasing as people begin to realize that their earnings are correlated with their educational level: in general, the higher their degrees and diplomas, the more they are likely to earn. This is perhaps another reason why growing numbers of "certification seekers" and "degree seekers" wish to obtain higher-level degrees and diplomas.

A new breed of educational institutions is beginning to arise whose survival depends on catering to the whims and fancies of its certificate-seeking and degree-seeking students. With the help of technology, such educational institutions are beginning to offer degrees in shorter and shorter periods of time in practically all subject areas. Somewhat like fast-food restaurants, these modern day institutions of education are more willing to customize their menus of degree and diploma offerings based on the preferences of their degree-seeking students.

The "certificate seekers" and "degree seekers" who live in technologically advanced societies are different from students of the past in important ways. Many of them are employed, and either pay their own way through college or obtain loans or financial aid, unlike traditional students who used to rely to a great extent on parental support. Traditional students are also used to the relaxed, laid back approach to learning, and are more than willing to spend four to five years in college to obtain a bachelor's degree and about one to two years to earn a degree at the master's level. Traditional students also take about five to ten years to earn doctoral degrees.

Modern degree seekers are not only experienced workers, but also live in service-oriented societies populated by businesses that are too eager to cater to their every need and whim. A degree seeker can drive through the service window of a fast-food restaurant and, within minutes, get the food that he or she needs or wants. They are also used to placing orders, either over the telephone or the Internet, and get the goods or services that they want delivered to their homes within days. When they pay money, they expect others to do the work. In return for what they pay, they expect and rightfully so, to get the goods or services that they need or want. This is generally how businesses operate. In exchange for payment, businesses deliver the goods and services that their customers want.

Advances in computer technologies make it increasing possible for educational institutions to deliver content to the homes of degree-seekers who are also their customers. Course content and degrees and diplomas can be ordered online by "certificate seekers and "degree seekers," much like other goods and services.

Education has always been different than business at least in one way. Those who wish to earn degrees and diplomas not only pay the price -- i.e. tuition -- but are also expected to work hard and learn the content associated with the diploma or degree. Not only do they have to learn, but they also have to prove to others that they have indeed learned what they were supposed to learn. In this sense, those who pay also work hard to get what they need or want, namely a degree. Diplomas were traditionally not considered the equivalent of goods or service that are available for sale. What was considered essential for businesses, namely speed of service, did not apply to traditional institutions of higher learning. There was an understanding, albeit implicit, that learning takes time. However, slowly but surely, and for better or for worse, things are beginning to change.

The "degree seekers" of modern societies are exerting subtle yet powerful pressures on institutions of higher education. Many of them have very clear ideas and preferences about what they want -- higher degrees and diplomas. They are using their power as consumers to make institutions of higher education change their ways. In response to pressures from degree seekers, who are also consumers living in service-oriented economies, the new breed of educational institutions must be more service-oriented and start treating their degree-seeking students as preferred clients or customers.

The "degree seekers" often ask the questions, "How soon can I finish the program?" "Do I have to attend classes?" "Can I get credit for my life or work experiences?" "Do you offer financial aid?" The bottom line for "degree seekers" is quite simply this: How can I get the highest possible degree, in the shortest possible time, in the most convenient manner, and at the cheapest cost? To many of them learning becomes secondary.

One thing that is lost on "degree seekers," and the colleges and universities that cater to them, is the connection between learning and earning the right to hold a degree. The "degree seekers" obviously understand the relationship between holding a higher diploma or degree and the amount of money, in the form of salary and benefits that it will help them earn in the competitive labor market. But somehow, the degree-seeking consumers and the educational institutions that cater to their needs have lost track of the relationship between learning and earning degrees, the fact that people have a right to those degrees only if they master the necessary content and skills that are associated with the degrees.

The relationship between learning and degrees will become further blurred by the fact that the new breed of universities is too eager and willing to confer diplomas on their degree-seekers in the shortest possible time frames. Since they are operating for profit, their survival depends on volume. The more clients that they can process in the shortest periods of time and in a most efficient manner, the more profits that they can make. Eventually, the bottom line becomes volume, not quality. Conferring degrees in the shortest periods of time to thousands and thousands of degree-seekers is certainly more profitable than truly educating smaller numbers of students. The economic imperative to serve "millions and millions" will outweigh the educational need to provide sustained learning experiences of high quality.

Modern societies will, sometime in the near future, perhaps within a very few generations, have a population of very highly degreed, yet poorly educated people. People holding doctoral degrees will be so common that a doctorate will become meaningless. Even people with doctoral degrees will have poor reading, writing, problem solving, and thinking skills. In another essay, I have labeled this potentially disastrous situation "degree inflation."

The educational institutions of the future that continue to provide true and sustained genuine learning experiences will have to create and offer new degrees and diplomas to cater to those who wish to be educated and not just degreed, the "knowledge seekers." Those who enroll in such programs will be the students of the future and they will continue to contribute to the development of knowledge and solve society's emerging and lingering problems. Researchers, intellectuals, inventors, discoverers, philosophers and thinkers of the future will emerge from the ranks of the "knowledge seekers." Some of these knowledge-seeking students will come from the masses of "certification seekers" and "degree seekers" who develop a sudden thirst for knowledge. However, most of the students who enroll in educational institutions of the future will be those who understand the true value of learning. True learning and real education will once again be the prerogative of the few, who irrespective of their social, economic or ethnic backgrounds genuinely understand the value of learning and knowledge.

The author is a tenured associate professor at Florida International University in Miami where he teaches educational technology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He is also a consultant on issues related to distance education.


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