Unbundling vs. Embedding: Approaches to reuse of integrated course objects

For a long time we have talked about the great unbundling. Roughly stated, a college course consists of content, some activity around that content, and some credit/assessment. Using terms from Matheos and Siemens we can talk about Content, Interaction, and Accreditation (I understand that the terms there are applied at the broader institutional level, but they work on the micro-level too):


Many people talking about the future of education (myself included) assumed through much of the aughts the future of education would be more or less “unbundled”. Your content might be OCW. Your accreditation would be done by WGU or Straighter Line. Your interaction might be a cMOOC.

With these multiple providers you (or an education integrator) could assemble the content, interaction, and accreditation parts separately, from separate vendors.  Efficiencies of specialization and scale would kick in. And conflicts of interest would be reduced: you didn’t have to get your car inspected at the place that did your engine work, and so on. Freedom!

Of course, the future didn’t quite co-operate. As Martin Weller expressed it a while back:

[A]fter a decade of OERs, it’s interesting that we’re coming back to educator constructed courses. The vision might have been of learners constructing their own personalised courses from the vast array of content out there. And while this does happen to an extent, and social tools will help it happen more, it’s also the case that one of the core functions the educator provides is to structure content into a sequence that learners can follow and have trust in. The bargain they make is this – if I do the course you have constructed then I will come out with a certain understanding of the topic.

Initially I felt a little down about this. But thinking it through over the past couple years, I’ve realized that there are major problems with severing assessment from content, content from interaction, and so on. If you don’t believe me, hop on down to your kid’s school on standardized assessment day. The problem is that the core offering of any educational institution is integration and coherence. To some extent it’s just Wiley’s Reusability Paradox writ large: modularity requires decontextualization for reuse in multiple contexts, but education is a process of contextualization. The perfectly decontextualized objects you would need to accomplish unbundling do not serve the integrative needs of the classroom.

So the future is increasingly looking somewhat more bundled than it was three years ago.

But then how does reuse and repurposing happen? I’d like to propose an alternative model which I’m calling embedding (and which I’m sure a commenter will tell me already exists and goes by name X, but that’s why I blog things like this — to find out that stuff).

In an embedded model, there is no unbundling. Instead there is “wrapping”. So for instance, a reuse case might look like this:

  • Students take an xMOOC on nutrition, which contains its own internal content, accreditation, and assessment. It is the credit equivalent of 1 to 2 credits.
  • Around that experience we wrap a 1 to 2 credit face-to-face class that recontextualizes the xMOOC. For instance, one F2F wrapper of the nutrition class might be  12th grade class engaged in a project-based assessment of the healthiness of their cafeteria food.  A college economics seminar might wrap the xMOOC with the intention of publishing research on the effect of economics on healthy eating, and so on. A dietetics class might wrap the course minimally, but use the face-to-face time to build group cohesion, provide better quality feedback than the MOOC, and assign additional topics. Again, the second layer of wrapping is not unbundled from the first, but provides a layer of local contextualization for the xMOOC.
  • Finally, there is engagement of all these separate classes in a Community of Inquiry around the subject of dietetics, but unlike the internal xMOOC conversations that deal with knowledge duplication, the CoI is involved with the multiple repurposings of the class — the college class is seeing what the 12th graders are doing and so on. Just as the face-to-face class contextualizes the xMOOC locally, the CoI places the F2F in the broader context of the multiple imaginings of that class.

In other words, rather than “unbundling”, it looks a little like this:

Thoughts? What is this? A dsMOOC? A cMOOC where individuals are replaced with classes? A Community of Inquiry that takes an xMOOC as its content instead of a text? (It also reminds me of the days at CogArts where we’d wrap an entire class in a SCORM wrapper with a single complete/non-complete flag, and call it a BFLO. I’ll let you older folks figure that one out…)

Whatever it is, I like it, and I think it’s the future of place-based education.

21 thoughts on “Unbundling vs. Embedding: Approaches to reuse of integrated course objects

  1. Great thinking here. It coincides with a couple of conversations I’ve had recently:

    1. I was speaking with a co-worker about the basic idea of backward design, exploring whether–in the development of learning design–it is more important to align assessments with outcomes, or content/activities with outcomes, and if it mattered whether content/activities were only aligned to outcomes through the directly aligned assessments.

    2. You probably know I’ve gone to a number of schools talking Canvas Network, and one of the schools suggested that, rather than engaging in open sharing themselves (because they really didn’t have content they thought was worth sharing), they’d first be adopting a model much like you describe here–without the CoI layer.

  2. I suspect that Jared’s second point is tracking a developing trend: we’ll see schools using the xMOOC as a text bundled inside a f2f course, but no push to the cMOOC level. I tend to think of MOOC in the cMOOC style, so this seems counter intuitive to me, but I think the xMOOC is going to end up being the dominant form institutionally (if MOOCs will ever be “dominant”), so the institutional level won’t feel a need to create the communities of inquiry. Maybe that’s just the pessimist in me . . . .

  3. Good points, both. I worry that the cMOOC piece gets lost as well. But I think this is something on a level that can be shaped — the disappearance of connectivism and CoI principles from this scheme is very possible, but not inevitable. A good reason to get out in front of this….

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