Unbundling higher education
These are my notes from a seminar by Amy Collier, Stanford University titled The Good, the Bad and the Unbundled on 27 August 2014. These notes were taken live and then cleaned up a bit, links added etc. but they remain a bit partial and sketchy in places. For a more thoughtful and reflective take on the presentation, see Hazel Christie’s post here. Amy’s own post on her visit can be found here.
The presentation is looking at this emerging phenomenon in the US Higher Education sector and the possible lessons for UK Higher Education.
Amy has been at Stanford for two half years working on MOOCs and on supporting the increasing interest in online learning at Stanford from a position of a weak tradition of online learning. Her role initially focused on the operational aspects of course design. She now has developed a more strategic role asking what they’re doing, who is being targeted and why adopting online learning.
Unbundling is an increasingly prominent topic in US higher education. It should also be noted that unbundling has a long presence in UK HE in particular through the Open University.
The Unbundling idea has taken hold in the US as part of a wider discourse of ‘disruption’. The US has a weird love affair with the term ‘disruption’. This love affair is based on a ‘dis-ease’ with how things are currently done. Higher education is ‘broken’ and should be disrupted and that disruption is often undertaken through unbundling. Yet, that discourse of dis-ease with a broken education system is often promoted by others as means to sell ‘solutions’.
Unbundling is the separation of ownership of infrastructure and processes of service provision to gain efficiencies and savings. So unbundling involves the compartmentalism of components of HE that are then outsourced to other providers rather than the traditional model of being provided by a single institution.
As an example, the music industry as traditionally produce a bundled product such as the album, but then iTunes disrupted this product by allowing the purchasing of single songs, users creating their own playlists, etc… Apple and iTunes allowed us as customer to do things with the purchased products independently of music businesses. This development lead on to Pandora and Spotify and took place within a discourse of ‘freedom’ and ‘access to artists’ and hence as the democratisation of the music industry. Similarly, we’e seeing an emerging discourse on the democratisation of higher education in US.
So what is the problem? What is lost when we unbundle? In the case of the music industry, we can see a counter-trend with the return of the cassette as a ‘product’ as a piece of art that cannot be unbundled (popular in Portland – who knew?), it is a single, indivisable and cohesive piece of art. Similar examples of rebundling can be seen in the examples of free music when you buy phone X or in playlists created by Pandora. So unbundling and then rebundling leads to a loss of control and more importantly, a loss of a sense of the whole – replaced by another interpretation of that whole – the art of the album. Also, while obscure artists can be found online they don’t have the sales volumes to make money through these unbundled services.
How does this apply to HE? Returning to the notion of HE as broken is “disaster porn” such as the IPPR report, An Avalanche is Coming. The IPPR report cites the diversity of pressures on HE in terms of purpose, funding, public policy in the context of a globalised economy where HE is no longer fit for purpose. HE should, therefore, look to technological solutions and these are to be found in the private sector.
A particular recent emphasis is on questioning the value of university, is it worth going? The degree is dead, reimagining higher education. Jose Ferriera (at Knewton) claims bundling works to trick people in to believing a service is worth more than it is and hiding the real cost-benefit.
Unbundling in HE may involve splitting: content; social networks; accreditation; delivery; testing; and research (see Henry Brady, UC Berkeley). But what are the tensions then between economic efficiencies and the holistic integrity of education?
And we can see examples of MOOCs unbundle accreditation from HE now. The American Council of Education is offering credientialisation of MOOCs through member HEIs so separating/ unbundling the delivery and accreditation of courses. Antioch College told its own students that they could receive credit for MOOCs thereby unbundled content, credit and, in this case, the tutoring and support of learning.
But the concept of unbundling has been going on in HE at least since the 19th Century, for example, in unbundling academics from the pastoral roles.
The problems of unbundling:
While a lot of the authors of the disruption discourse make this comparison to the music industry, as George Siemens states, education is a social and cultural as well as content ‘industry’. In taking that perspective, a number of problems with, or questions on, unbundling can be identified:
1. Who, how and what of rebundling? Who does the rebundling and what power are they taking through rebundling? Things that get unbundled tend to be rebundled with a change of ownership and control and what does this mean, for example, on the student experience?
The Minerva project provides access to higher education at reduced cost by focusing on (transferable) skills rather than content/ domain knowledge. They rely on MOOCs for domain knowledge for introductory courses. So Minerva are rebundling MOOCs provided by others while focusing on project-based and experiential learning..
A dark-side of this is that there will still be very bundled education institutions and there is a danger that these highly bundled experiences become the expensive premium service for an elite minority. So the unbundling and rebundling ‘disruptions’ will increase the divisions on access to high quality education.
So, while it remains the case that for some students the unbundled experience may be what they want and need, a key question remains that if unbundling is about raising access to HE then who for and to what form of HE?
Also, bundled and unbundled experiences collected data. HEIs are generally trusted to handle data with care and respect but what happens when services are unbundled and rebundled with the concomitant opportunities for the commercial exploitation of student data. For example, the backlash on the recent Facebook experiment was not just against Facebook but also Cornell University for their role in analysing the data.
2. Impacts on teaching and other staff.
We can see the unbundling of the academics’ role eg, in support development of student social networks, advising, admissions, instruction design,teaching, research etc . especially to para-academics, but this is problematic if you view the academics’ role as holistic.
In the case of MOOCs, courses are being designed by people who may not deliver/ teach on them. But this approach can also be seen in the development of Online & Distance Learning (ODL) programmes from the 1990s as they considered how learning technologists interacted with academic staff. Different models of ODL can be seen:
(i) craft model where faculty did it all; (ii) collegial model where academics helped each other; and (iii) where a virtual assembly line was created the produced a course for academics to deliver. The craft model is where academics identified themselves as autonomous experts whereas this identity was lost in the assembly line model. So unbundling also affects academic self-identification.
But why is an integrated faculty role of value? Because it engages academics in their work and highlights the integrative role of research and teaching. On the other hand, unbundling does allow faculty to focus on individual areas of strength – why force a shy researcher in to teaching?
There are other models such as Patricia Ianuzzi’s (University of Nevada) team-based model involving the co-production between academics and para-academics of student experiences.
3. the lost art of the University: what happens when unbundling leads to loss of serendipity and synergies of the bundled student experience?
On a positive note, unbundling may provide opportunities for the redesign of HE and to challenge assumptions of the institutions.
Examples of redesigning rather than unbundling has changed HE
1. domain of one’s own at the University Mary Washington as a push-back against VLEs and MLEs. Each student was provided with a domain for students to use any tools they wanted and use for their learning. This initiative allows students to experiment with online learning both personally and in groups. Another initiative is Thought Vectors at Virginia Commonwealth University enabling student learning on open websites.
2. the Stanford 2025 project involved both students and staff to consider the redesign of Stanford for 2025. For example, redesigned away from semester and academic years to a much more flexible programme structure built around micro-learning opportunities as Paced Education. In effect this is unbundling the curriculum and is being implemented through The Impact Lab. This social innovation is focused on the food system and involves students researching (immersion), prototyping and piloting implementations of interventions in the food system.
The key point of this talk is to examine the issues and opportunities in the unbundling of higher education.
Q: Can you separate the neo-liberal drivers of the rise of idea of unbundling and the more positive opportunities of redesign? How suspicious should we be of unbundling in HE?
A: I’m very suspicious mainly because I work in Silicon Valley and see unbundling projected as way for start-ups to access investment and government to ‘solve’ higher education through the private sector.
Q: Can you comment on the adjunct faculty in the US as it appears to be linked?
A: Unbundling the faculty role leads to the deskilling of the faculty so seeing rise of adjunct faculty as having very specialist skills along with precarious employment positions. See the alt ac movement in US (alternative academic).
Q: Comments Music Industry to suggest that senior managers saw that the internet would change their business but didn’t know how to change. Also, the UK has the experience of the OU for the team development of courses. Finally, HEI is very diverse but that is hidden to many of us. Some HEIs rebundle through eg, accreditation of prior learning (cites military in US as example of this)
A: RPEL is really important. A key danger of unbundling is that it imposes a monolithic view of HE and that a sense diversity is lost.
Q: Interested in your views of a model from Cornell University of a faculty housing model of free housing if you live with the students as a rebundling of student services?
A: Stanford has strong ethos of living on campus and the creation of a learning community.
Q: Who is the customer and what is the product? Are students viewed as a product and society the customer?
A: The student as customer is a strong aspect of the unbundling discourse. People have changed their ideas of education as a public good and the promotion of citizenship – now less of a priority given the end of the Cold War.
Q: Worried that there may be an oversimplification of a good or bad unbundling and whether there is a need for a bigger discussion on what the university is for?
A: I’m not opposed to unbundling per se but more discussion is needed beyond the binary of good and bad but that allows the challenge of the assumptions of educational institutions