Academics stand on a precipice separating our past, when genres of communication evolved slowly, and our future, when new genres emerge overnight. Our concepts of research, the authority of knowledge, and the shape of content are being radically challenged. We have difficulty imagining what dissertations or academic digital libraries will look like ten years from now. The shape of a dissertation is evolving from the first six-page, handwritten thesis at Yale University in 1860 into a form we cannot yet predict. Today's researchers and scholars are challenging the conventions of linear texts, one-inch margins, and texts written for extremely narrow audiences. They are integrating video, audio, animation, and graphics into their works. They are creating interactive elements, including real-time video, pivot tables, and online writing spaces.
The power of ETDs is rooted in access. No longer are theses and dissertations just an academic hurdle, a last step in the arduous process of graduate education. Instead, ETDs are a meaningful connection with significant readers. Collaborative author tools enable faculty to serve on dissertation committees at universities distant from their home campuses and using tools such as NetMeeting to mentor students from a distance. Rather than accepting their research and scholarship will be read only by a select few (i.e., their committees), graduate students can now expect many readers.
Predicting the future of academic scholarship is a little like predicting the stock market: both are volatile and unpredictable. Given this fact, however, it appears that there are a number of emerging trends that will affect our enterprise:
- Dissertations will matter more than they have in the past. Thanks to digital libraries, which increase access (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/data/somefacts.html) from one or two readers to sometimes more than 60,000, students and universities will pay greater attention to the quality of students' research and writing.
- Given this increased access, both students and universities may begin to pay greater attention to the quality of scholarly writing.
- Progressive universities will use their digital libraries of ETDs to market their programs, and universities will provide the resources students need to write multimedia research.
- Multimedia documents will transform author-reader relations. Authors will interact synchronously with readers, create different reading paths for different readers, and use visuals, animation, and pivot tables.
- Students will increasingly search the worldwide digital libraries of ETDs, resulting in research that is more collaborative and more current.
- Across disciplines, students will provide links that clarify the significance, methodology, and findings of their work to a broader range of readers, including lay audiences, thereby helping the general public better understand the value of academic scholarship. As an example, students in the social sciences can incorporate video of cultures and primary subjects; they can create polyvocal case studies and ethnographies - that is, studies with alternative interpretations.
- Faculty members will work more collaboratively with students, resulting in more complete bibliographies and saved time.
Next Section: Managing technology changes