TED Conversations

David Hamilton


This conversation is closed.

Should degrees have "patches"?

Simple enough starting point. In the modern world our knowledge base is expanding so quickly that 5 years after you get a degree, quite a bit of what you learned is obselete, and quite a few important discoveries have been made. If you go into business, or government research, you may actually surpass the knowledge on any degree program, in your specific discipline... But, you'll still miss out on advances in your field of study, that do not apply to your business, or research.

Should modern universities offer degree patches, the way software companies offer patches. Every 5 years or so, each school is meant to design a one or two week online course, specifically designed to keep people who have already been granted degrees, in touch with the most up to date information in the field.

Having these patches on your degree, would then be quite valuable in the eyes of an employer I imagine. Some companies may even offer to pay for you to go get your patch...

Kinda seems like a no brainer to me.


Closing Statement from David Hamilton

Very fun and engaging discussion. Personally, I think MIT should get busy on this. Unlike many people here, however, I believe that proving knowledge and skills is the purpose of education. I believe every child is naturally curious, we don't teach them to be creative, we do the opposite. Teaching facts we know about the universe, or even ones we believe to be true because of a preponderance of evidence, has a place, and it's an incredibly important institution, one in desperate need of modern reform. As a bonus, first institution to do it well, gets an incredible revenue stream. Peace and love.

  • Aug 29 2012: The nursing profession is big on this. To keep your license and the ability to practice you must put in so many hours per year of training. An established "patch" system...

    Obviously this is has a positive benefit to patient care and their life expectancy.
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    Aug 7 2012: I think it is a great idea, however, the universities are the ones who probably need the patches. They seem to lag decades behind innovation. Could it work both ways, offering your expertise back to the university once you go off to do great things upon graduation?
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    Aug 5 2012: I recently watched Daphne Koller's talk about her startup Coursera, ( http://www.ted.com/talks/daphne_koller_what_we_re_learning_from_online_education.html ) I feel like Coursera would be a good framework for an idea like this since they already have the infrastructure capable of teaching classes to a widespread, online demographic and they already have universities partnered with them. The courses wouldn't have to be as long as some of the ones offered on Coursera now, and the ability to record wrong and right answers and stuff like that could help shed light on the biggest holes in the knowledge of professionals in various fields. A possible problem would be deciding if universities would accept "patches" from other universities. Like if there was a "patch" from Stanford in my field, would my university allow me to use that as an acceptable form of updating? Because each university offering "patches" for each of their majors would be a bit ridiculous and flood the system.
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    Aug 2 2012: If one is passionate about his or her field on study, then one would try as much as possible to keep up with innovations and new concepts through journals and publications either online or in print.

    However, the 'patches' is a good idea for those folks who are just trying to get paid(without any passionate interest in their field), or for the ones who would be too lazy to add to their knowledge without being compelled by companies asking for their 'patches'.
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      Aug 2 2012: I think they also make doctors take these periodic tests to make sure their knowledge of their profession is still kept up with.
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      Aug 3 2012: I agree completely... but, I think I wrote too generally, when I was thinking more specifically.

      I'll use psychology, as an example, you get your degree, in the 1980's, and you go to work helping people in the federal prison system. If you are passionate, you will stay up to date on your field of study, but certainly, working in a prison, will focus you on specific advances. You would likely begin to focus on abnormal psychology, because so many of the patients you deal with on a daily basis, have very severe conditions.

      The prison you are working for, closes... And they don't need a new prison psychologist, in your local area. You may still have a PhD in cognitive therapy... but you may have missed many advances, in how the field relates to human sexuallity, and relationships, or more simple conditions like mild insomnia, temporary depression... etc. I don't know if that's the best example, but I think you will understand the concept.

      You get a degree in engineering, and then you work for a solar company for 10 years... You're still an engineer, but your knowledge is very speciallized in one field, but a bit behind likely, in others. The patch could give you the opportunity to catch up, if you have to change the specifics of your job, but remain an engineer.

      Finally. I think it would be a usefull tool for the unemployed in general. A good system rarely has people with useful degrees unemployed, but it happens. In essence, it gives you something to do with your time, to keep your mind sharp, and reminds employers, that while you were unemployed... That's what you decided to do with the time, rather than watch TV.
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        Aug 3 2012: I understand the idea better now. It is true that the 'patches' will be needed in the instances you have mentioned; especially the unemployed.
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      Aug 4 2012: Agreed however the idea is a very good one.

      I know in some countries professional like doctors have to earn certain credits every year by joining different seminars relevant to their practice , so that they are updated. It's a mandate by government in some cases , but it's not coming from universities of medical school from where they got the degree. May be such requirement is there for doctors as they work with patients life /well being directly on day to day basis.

      However I am not sure about impact......as learning is a matter of passion I feel like Feyisayo mentioned above.
  • Aug 24 2012: I think we're diverging a bit from the topic at hand. I'll try to bring my commentary back into relevance by expanding on the first point that Lepetit made - that there's a difference when pay yourself and when the government pays on your behalf. Where I live student loans are much lower than in the USA and only have to be paid once the individual earns a certain amount, so I imagine there is a lot less pressure to start paying it back. Unemployment also isn't as big of a problem (plenty of graduates spend a short amount of time unemployed while they seek jobs). I think it gives greater freedom to do further qualifications, so ongoing professional development may be less difficult. But that's just speculation.

    Never the less I like the idea of your scheme - it would be great to be provided with a short refresher every 5 or so years. I study pharmaceutical drugs so in 5 years everything will be different. And I won't have time to sift through all the papers on every drug. What would be good for me is getting updates when our understanding of key concepts advances. You might miss this looking through papers or even reviews.

    I'm planning to subscribe to a couple of major journals when I finish, but I get the feeling that won't be good enough. We actually have a bit of a problem in the medical field where there is so much being discovered that practitioners can't keep up. We need a solution to this.
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      Aug 24 2012: Thank you very much. I apologize for getting baited into another discussion I happen to enjoy on the topic of education, and getting into a bit of an offensive posture. I tend to think student loans are very high in the US, because too many people have degrees in fields that do not translate to actual job skills.

      I think by taking on these debts, our citizens are slowly going to change our focus, and move back towards science, math, and engineering. Having this belief, however, makes me think that the entire Western world is in for a bit of a rude awakening in regards to how much money it spends teaching children art and music, which they can, and already do learn about on the internet for free. I don't think the taxes you pay for education are well spent, nor the debts Americans incur... That is an entirely different discussion though, which would be fun if you started it : )
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    Aug 17 2012: 'Patches' already exist. They are called 'certificates' and 'advanced learning' programs. Basically, its a high priced shake-down from universities and institutions so that they can trap people in more debt after their university years are complete.

    I just finished paying for my Master degree - 8 years after completing the program. I am none to eager to take on more debt. If a company I am working for wants to pay for my continuing education - I'm for it. If I have to foot the bill, no thanks.

    IWe also have to realize that we can't educate ourselves out of ever scenario. If the sun doesn't shine, the answer is "more education".

    Damn, how much education do you think a human being needs before what they're learning needs to be backed by experience? Pretty soon you'll need a PhD to sweep floors. Sad. We're moving to a seriously over-educated society where that education means less and less in the job market.
  • Aug 13 2012: In a word......Yes! And if thy chose not to upgrade, their degree should be revoked until thy do so.
  • Aug 9 2012: Brilliant idea, especially anything to do with computing.
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    Aug 9 2012: Well, I've gone back and forth on my view of this proposal, while reading the responses. My initial reaction was that this would just be another marketing scheme for universities to make more money. Almost like putting an expiration date on your degree.

    As has already been mentioned, several fields (my wife's included) demand continuing education to maintain credentials, so your proposal could formalize that mandate.

    A couple of questions I have, however:

    (1) People are so mobile right now, how would a person, with a degree from New York, get their patch if they now live in Los Angeles? Doing this online has shortcomings especially for those, with degrees from more reputable institutions.

    (2) I would have to ask those viewing this board, how many use a significant percentage of what they learned in college day-to-day on the job (even if recently graduated)? My own self-directed continuous learning and OJT have moved me pretty far from the classes I took in college, and frankly, I have to think that if most people were to look at the cross-section of daily job duties and things they have to know, it would be a blend of many different degree elements. That difficulty in classification might make "patching" degrees more difficult or confine it to a narrow band of majors.
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      Aug 10 2012: If I were to receive updates of content related to my undergraduate degree, it might be fun but not particularly useful in my life and not useful in my professional life.
      Were I to receive updates of content connected to my later education, it would be convenient, but part of the value of schooling is that I learned how to keep up myself. So I would not pay for the institution to update me.
      In terms of evidence that I keep up, it is much more important for that to show daily in my work than for me to have an official outside verification.
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    Aug 8 2012: Good point. This could save many business massive amounts of money. As it is now business have to retrain people in house or send employees back to college in order to touch up their skills. These "patches" could even be supported by larger business. For example donations to universities that offer them.
  • Aug 7 2012: This is an excellent idea. Imagine the patch for a psychology degree that's 20 years old, with the leaps in technology in brain imaging. I'd love to know what has been found since the split -brain studies I read about! And what we must be finding out about Learning with Coursera, Khan Academy, Ted Talks, learning games like Luminosity and all the MASSIVE amounts of data these are accumulating about the human mind. And then think of what we now must be uncovering in Behavioual psych just by monitoring what people search in the googlebox. Maybe a patch would not be possible, since one psych degree would be so different from another, depending what a person had chosen to focus on: Biological, Developmental, Cognitive, Forensic, Behavioral, and who was teaching then. Who is to say there is much similarity between schools as you get into upper level courses? I remember taking a class about sexual selection, one on circadian rhythms and one that debunked religion. You'd almost need to take your patch at your alma mater and hope your profs aren't retired. As you see, I think as I type- sorry about that- and I've come full circle: does a patch function to correct problems/mistakes or to add new content? Wouldn't offering a patch be tantamount to admitting that the degree issued is less than perfect? What prof will offer to come forward and say "my life's work has been shown to be incorrect in the following way(s) by so-and such university over there". And, how much of your degree was relevant to your life in the first place? Imagine having to refresh on something like circadian rhythms each year, or tricyclics vs. SSRIs (see, 20 year old degree talkin'). I still love the idea though- how do you see it being applied? Revisit first year through Coursera? That should show any change in the fundamentals of each field, no?
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      Aug 8 2012: I think the best way to do it, would be to use the "patch", that the institution already applies each year.

      Each year, the head of each department, can look at changes in the course work, for the degrees offered by his or her department, and make notes on the changes. "Oh, if you got this degree last year, you would learn this, but not this..." Every few years, that information is combined into a single lecture, and you can sell it online, to anyone who graduated.

      It would be hard to apply retroactively, but honestly, most major universities, keep their tenured staff around forever. Harvard, probably has a guy who was teaching there 25 years ago, and has old notes in a box with curriculum changes he's had to make over the years. Have the university, start looking for people who just horde their data, and buy it off of them.

      It's definately something that would take some effort, but I think the first university to do it well, will sell a boat load of them. If it's MIT, or Harvard, no one will even question if the patch is legit, and you'll be able to get an MIT Forensic Psychology patch for you University of Michigan Forensic Psychology degree : P

      This is such an MIT idea...
      • Aug 8 2012: So, to pursue your idea, would you now go to your profs, request the information on changes since you graduated, compile the information into a lecture and then offer it back to the university? Or make a contact list from your yearbook and email them a course offering....
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          Aug 8 2012: If I wanted to start a business that performed this, that would probably be the way to go.

          Honestly, this was just something in the back of my mind for awhile, had no intent to do anything with it. If I were to try, the easiest venue would probably be to make a short presentation to people associated with the open university program at MIT. Just keep emailing professors until the right ones respond.

          I'm not a big fan of money. It would be nice, but the only degree I could patch right now would be an AS in Computer Networking, one of the more complex, and expensive programs to work on. This really isn't my kind of business, I'm still considering returning to school. It's going to make someone a lot of money though.
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    Aug 7 2012: Degrees are fashion statements now?! OMG! Where can I get one?!
    • Aug 7 2012: Hasn't anyone ever asked you where you got yours? There's always been a brand name/ no-name brand situation with degrees.
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    Gail . 50+

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    Aug 5 2012: I think that degrees should be circles, filled with pixels that are colored when a class is successfully completed. Colors can represent a field of study, many of which follow logical progressions, so the learning tracks would form something like road maps. Thus, a degree would be a visual representation of your learning experience. The year that a course was taken would be within the pixel. In this way, life-long learning is encouraged, and a way for a self-educator, such as myself, to figure out what course comes next might be made much easier. Everyone's degree will look a little different from everyone else's and it will change with every course completion.
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    Aug 4 2012: This is genuinely a great idea. In this information-explosion era, people cannot stop absorbing new things or they will just be obsolete and out of touch. Online courses sound like a plan, but I wonder how many people, after graduating so many years, will actually follow the plan and take those courses, even though they may know knowledge is important.
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      Aug 4 2012: I think in many professions continuing education/professional development is a requirement to manitain a license. Beyond this, professionals are typically interested in maintaining their skills and expanding their skills as new tools become available. The professional associations to which people belong also continuously feed to their members free and for-charge professional development opportunities.

      Even in the much maligned field of teaching, one cannot even maintain the credential (and thus be allowed to teach) if one does not accumulate what are called "credit hours" of a certain amount every five years. The requirement is for hundreds of credit hours every five years, and the documentation is retained.

      Those who get a lot of education in the first place typically enjoy it. One doesn't have to twist their arms, typically, to get them to take advantage of conferences, mini-courses, and other professional development opportunities. The online schools and executive development programs, for example, that universities offer have a nice chunk of mid-career students in them.

      The key is that people expect and, I think, deserve a choice in the professional development that fits in best with their desired career trajectories.
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    Aug 3 2012: Dave, First of all I agree with your idea. However, I am a research nut and read my doctors bio in the state register and find out his education, certifications, number of complaints founded and unfounded, and any board actions against him/her. The question is almost all professionals have their credentials on the wall ... how many of us ever bother looking at the certificate wall. We hear all the time of someone practicing and never had the education. Another one last week in Ohio and one in Penn.

    The draw back I see is when you are working it is not important to update as you have a job and are probally compartmentalized. When you change jobs the gaining company wants you for your current work and contacts as well as a little industrial espinage. The best application is as you have stated is when you become unemployed and need to update the ole resume.

    I am not a big fan of on line courses. If I owned the compnay I would find a local leading practionier to come in with the latest high tech advances. To be honest the Universities are not leading edge. Some research univ. may be up to date but they could not share that info as it belongs to the agency funding the work.

    To be honest, the ole slip stick work is gone. I can do more on the Cray computer in 10 minutes than in a office in a month. Perhaps what we are looking for is the right tools.

    I made no point but threw some new thought into the mix.

    All the best. Bob.
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      Aug 4 2012: I think, I pretty much agree with all of this. I've been thinking about the doctors a lot lately, as my mother went through cancer... I just started thinking to myself "How do I know this isn't the guy who graduated in the 70's, and then never went to another class for the rest of his life". Luckily with doctors, you can find out, and the people who worked with her had very good reputations and credentials, and she's recovering well.

      More and more, I just think this is a sellable product. I think if Harvard offered degree patches, which intentionally kept their alumni up to date on new information, and then certified that they learned it... Even if it's not that good... I think it would be one nice leg up they had on the competition. "Get your degree here, and it will never look out of date".

      I shouldn't have given this one away from free : p
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        Aug 4 2012: David thanks for sharing about your mom and thanks for being you. I am delighted to hear that she is doing better. It is a sound idea and a way for universities to stay valid in a time of great change.
  • Aug 3 2012: I was thinking merit badges(patch). I would like to see a MOOC Merit Badge system that was recognized by HR departments.
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    Aug 3 2012: i recently upgraded my BSc with leonard susskind's lecture series on modern physics, available for free on youtube
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      Aug 4 2012: Point taken... If your university just sent you a little update lecture every few years, to say "This is what you missed if you weren't paying attention", wouldn't you think that was kind of cool though? I might want to take it every 5 years just for fun, spend a week on white sand beaches with a laptop learning what the university did.
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        Aug 4 2012: sure i would. but face it, they are not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. so if i can choose, i would choose material from better sources, like MIT or stanford.
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      Aug 4 2012: Indeed, there is a wealth of resources, on paper and online, that have made continuous learning easy for those who crave it or for those who need it to address new problems.

      I agree, Krisztian, that we are fortunate now to be able to learn from many of the best sources in the world, and increasingly at no charge. I think there is an advantage, actually, to learning through an institution where one did not happen to get ones degree.

      just yesterday I signed up for a Coursera. My foray, though, is about learning something entirely different from the areas in which I already have a lot of education.
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    Aug 3 2012: I love this idea and I would be willing to do it because I think I would be able to requalify. I worry that those who would be against it, would be for self centered and self protective reasons. I think we owe it to our societies, clients/patients and selves to do this and certification for it would help everyone to know that the information they get from us is current and reliable.
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    Aug 2 2012: I think the people at their professions do keep up with more up to date things than college classes sometimes.

    And as for the "patches" in college, I thought they already do that? Well my major, Computational Media, is a fairly new major, and has still been kind of in its experimental stages in terms of courses and curriculum to offer. It could just be me...
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      Aug 3 2012: Wow, I've never heard of such a thing. That's fantastic. This may have actually been a bad topic for debate, because in many ways, it's really just a product idea.

      I just thought... People would pay, to have their degree updated, especially if they're about to enter the job market, or are curently unemployed. I would rather visit a psychologist that can prove, he's up to date on the latest drug side effect watch lists, etc.

      It seems like while I agree that people who are good at their jobs, do stay up to date on their fields, it might be nice to have an extra tool for sorting out the ones that don't.
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        Aug 3 2012: Well, they don't really name it "patching" or anything, but my major does update its curriculum every few years, because we're still experimenting what people in the major need to know. I'm not sure about the other majors though.

        Hey, any idea is a good idea in the grander scheme of things :)

        You know, I think it also depends on the profession really. A profession that changes a lot with time, like Computer Programmers, will need to keep up to date with things. However, a historian may not necessarily need to.
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          Aug 3 2012: Ahh, ya, I meant, post degree patching. For older people to come back to the university, and catch up on what they've missed. Not everyone will have missed anything, some people will waste their time in the class, and then pass the test with flying colors, because they stayed up to date on their own. For others, I think it could be a really useful tool.
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        Aug 4 2012: I think it's pretty good idea, but I think it depends on the profession really. Like in computer science, if the practices change frequently, then they need to adopt the newer methods. Though I think most people in CS are very up to date on new practices.
  • Sep 1 2012: Knowledge isn't the end goal of education. Learning to think is the true advantage of higher education. The patches (version updates) are simply shared discoveries. I believe the individuals that fail in their post-institution lives, are those who don't recognize education as a process of discovery, and only think of it as an accumulation of knowledge.
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    Sep 1 2012: I think it depends entirely on the amount of research information being generated by the specific discipline. Thanks to the Internet, we can make that process less burdensome.

    In the old days, we subscribed to a magazine that focused on our specific discipline. My ex-wife was a Certified Nurse Midwife and had to attend updating classes periodically. After a few years, she was forced to get re-certified.

    With math and physics, it's sort of built into the discipline.
  • Aug 28 2012: I would like to answer the question by addressing the basic assumption or underlying argument. The argument upon which this suggestion is based, 'quite a bit of what you learned is obsolete' is met by many leading universities by providing project-based curricula. As a result, professors at these universities are well-regarded in their respective fields for gaining insightful advances and cutting-edge knowledge as they use real case examples for their growth. However, these form only a tiny minority of educational institutions and universities. The real question in my opinion now is how to get the vast majority of the remaining institutions and even the remaining courses in these leading universities converted to project-based curricula?
  • Aug 27 2012: Yes i agree .... Universities should offer patches...
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    Aug 27 2012: Sounds like a good idea.
    Ultimately it is up to the individual to keep themselves up to date.
    Some professions are better at supporting or requiring this than others.
  • Aug 25 2012: "Simple enough starting point. In the modern world our knowledge base is expanding so quickly that 5 years after you get a degree, quite a bit of what you learned is obselete, and quite a few important discoveries have been made. If you go into business, or government research, you may actually surpass the knowledge on any degree program, in your specific discipline... But, you'll still miss out on advances in your field of study, that do not apply to your business, or research."

    Not true, this mostly depends on what you study in the first place. My field is engineering. What we learn and are taught are the fundamentals of engineering during the first 2 years then go on to apply and develop those skills the 2 years after. Some of what you learn, you may never use, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily obsolete.

    Research programs gives you more in-depth knowledge into specific topics. That hardly substitutes for the fundamentals that you learn during your 1st 4 years, aka communication, science, math, and computation. Should we drop Newtonian/Classical physics because of special and general relativity?

    I believe the reality is, people are surprised that after 4 years that working at the work place will still mean learning, perhaps going to more classes, and being taught more things. I

    I once asked an electrical engineer what he does at Boeing. He told mechanical engineering. I asked him how he was able to work seeing as how he had no prior education in mechanical engineering. He told he learned as he went.
  • Aug 25 2012: Just a thought - look how many people including experts ignore the basics. Look at Economics As an interested undergrad in Introductory Economics I was told that no one reads Malthus. Well Darwain and Wallace did. I was told he was negative. What about moral restraint. Duh, they never read Malthus. What about the problems with wages in America. Go back about teo hundred (200) years and read Ricardo. Also our text and Samuelson had a note how companies lowered wages ninty(90) years ago. A few years ago there was a great deal of interest in Chaos theory, but before that except in Russia the new guy was Euler. There are new things under the sun, but they are not many. Somehow I don't think the Higgs Boson is our most pressing problem. What am I saying there are many ways of looking at problems Reread Science and Sanity Count Alfred K had some good ideas about basics. However useful engineering math is Go to B School and the emphasis will be different, and the non Quants still won't get it. Would the world really be better with Mr. Spock as President or CEO Well sometimes. Look at the Martial Arts in some a black belt is only the beginning not the end. School is a key to enter. In the professions there is CLE. As expensive as I have been told college/University or whatever now is figure out how to move on and to grow.
  • Aug 24 2012: For most college-educated professionals, their undergraduate and perhaps graduate degree afforded them an attainment greater than specific 100% applicable knowledge, it gave them the solid foundation to problem-solve, and practice to lead themselves and others. I suggest that degree "patches" are unnecessary, but the function of obtaining the most recent relevant update to their academic knowledge is already supplied by: 1) annual continuing education requirements for retaining certification within specific fields (i.e. CPA CPE, Bar CLE, PE CEP); 2) profession-specific trade publications, books and online forums; 3) emerging free/paid online education venues such as coursera.org, edx.org and even khanacademy.org so that the professional can tailor their interest beyond degree/certification requirements and learn whatever is relevant and interesting to the individual. As others opined, it doesn't make sense to necessitate a continued academic relationship to your alma mater, just to get/keep ahead in your profession.
  • Aug 23 2012: Perhaps there are better metrics for measuring knowledge and competence then contemporary degrees... A more gamified patch system would probably optimize it, but it´s far from optimal. We need indicators, but at the core I believe in the social market when it comes to measuring knowledge, intuition is one of the most effective algorithms we have access to. But patches, or badges is great! Like a badge for doing your first abdominal surgery, or coding your first JAVA pattern recognizer. Thats it! Not patches, badges! You don´t need to know my degree if I´ve successfully coded or performed surgery on a professional level. Just look at my badge, like in a videogame. Degrees are so pre-informationage-ish...