Two Types of Unbundling (and which one we should worry about)

It occurs to me that there are two types of “unbundling” of education, and for the most part people focus on the wrong one.

The first type, which we will call vertical unbundling, is the one that the educational futurists talk about — the separation of content from facilitation, and facilitation from assessment. This is the Western Governor’s University-style unbundling — learn this any way you want, we’re just the assessor, etc. It’s based on a business model of specialization, an assumption that an unbundled vertical market will produce multiple competitors, and that competition with produce greater efficiency, and maybe greater quality as well.

However, it’s not as easy at it first looks. It’s very difficult to make assessments that are not course-specific — you end up writing ridiculous pineapple stories in an attempt not to privilege any individual student experience. You necessarily eliminate certain points of view about what is important in a discipline.  As is the case with Advanced Placement programs, when the assessment is unbundled, the facilitation and content becomes rigid and generic, taking on aspects of a test prep program. Even with separating content and facilitation you run into the reusability paradox — it seems a no-brainer that lectures can be unbundled from discussion, but in practice, a good lecture references previous discussion.

So this unbundling effort proceeds, and it will have a major impact, eventually. But it is slow going.

The second type of unbundling, which I’ll lateral unbundling, is a different story. In lateral unbundling, the courses remain atomic units of tethered content, facilitation, and asssessment, but their relationship to a degree becomes untethered. And that’s what we are looking at right now, as the question arises of whether colleges will grant MOOC credit through existing transfer processes.

This unbundling could go relatively quick, for a number of reasons. The main reason is we’ve spent more than a century constructing a credit hour system and articulation agreements that make transfer credit not only possible, but fairly easy. There’s very little, institutionally, that has to be built to allow a Udacity MOOC to count for credit at your university — you just sign the correct papers, and the thing is done. Colorado State did that just last week.

The second reason is that there’s a bit of a domino effect. If I am a student who has some MOOCs under my belt, and I’m looking for a university to go to full time, it makes sense that I am going to head to the university that gives me credit for my MOOC experience. As a university seeking to expand or maintain enrollment, accepting MOOC credit becomes one of the selling points of my university. In fact, I would not be surprised if at some point the MOOCs partner up with universities, and offer them marketing access to local MOOC completers (Liked this class? Like to transfer its credit into a real program? Talk to Foobar State College!).

So once Colorado State does this for a significant amount of courses, it might be very hard for Colorado State’s competitors to say no.

For these reasons, I think lateral unbundling could proceed relatively fast (and do keep in mind that this is only one possible future, and that fast in higher education is often slow by any other measure…).

It’s worth noting too that this unbundling is already happening in the U.S. at the community college level, with community colleges increasingly supplying transfer credits into four-year programs (with the Obama administration’s assistance and blessing). And that this sort of unbundling is not without major problems — all that beautiful coherence you built into your program is at stake.

Two types of unbundling, both important, both moving forward. But it’s the horizontal unbundling that has already arrived, and the one that needs out attention now if we want to do this right.



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