People say “unbundling” is going to happen in education, and I’m here to say that, yeah, it probably is. But far from solving student problems, my guess is it will create a whole new set of student problems, most of them resulting from the fact that making unbundling easy for the student is likely to make it less profitable for the providers, whereas making it bizarrely complicated is likely to squeeze a few extra dimes out of every degree.
Today I read something that captures the potential trainwreck-ness of unbundling in higher education — Linda Holmes writing about the world of unbundled TV. After listing 25 ways a person can access shows nowadays (via cable, antenna, DVR, on demand, third-party digital rental, third party digital sale, DVD, Hulu/Netflix/Amazon Prime, etc.) she notes that, having some free time this summer, she wanted to watch a specific show, and despite a) having access to these options, and b) a “platinum-level” cable package, and c) being a TV critic for NPR, she still could not figure out how to get access to the show she wanted.
Why is that? Because far from the $1 per song iTunes future everyone imagines when they talk about unbundling, TV show streaming and purchase is a world of endless hustle, transient contracts, and multi-national conflicts of interest. It’s a world dominated by an overriding desire to monetize content and services, and that’s accomplished by endless reconfiguration of where any given show is available on any given day, based on ever-morphing corporate strategies.
She concludes with what I think is a prescient analysis of one future of education, even if she is just talking about how to get a new Fox comedy onto a screen she owns:
The topic of cord-cutting – of people doing away with cable and getting by with broadband and broadcast – is eternally popular to rhapsodize about, in part because it seems to promise an a la carte world of convenience and freedom. And for some people, it absolutely does; it’s particularly nice for people who don’t watch much TV and don’t care whether what they watch is current.
But look again at that list of 25 ways to watch television, and consider how many potential entry points there are for your dollar even aside from cable: your device, your broadband, your service, your app. We know with reasonable certainty that in ten years, we will be looking at a different landscape. Will it be a more friendly one or a cheaper one? Not to be a cynic, but if we apply a gambling metaphor, the identity of the house hasn’t changed that much, so you have to at least consider the possibility that as long as you want in on this particular game, the house will continue to win. Who supplies most people’s broadband? Who supplies their tech?
Ultimately, the same people who make money from the way you used to watch TV in the past are, make no mistake, working very hard to make sure they will be the people who make money from the way you will watch TV in the future. Even as services like Sling TV and HBO NOW pull away from building everything on top of a cable subscription, and even as they come up with the 26th and 27th and 35th way to watch, the object remains the same. And it is to entertain you, perhaps to enrich you, and absolutely to charge you.
From one standpoint, unbundling is seen as the process of getting the student what they need, whereever it comes from. And maybe that’s the future we’re headed for.
But I can’t help but thinking that from the supply side unbundling is about making yourself necessary to the student, even when that is against student interest, and that future could look less like the flat world of $1 downloads and more like the Byzantine world of digital television, where a patchwork of rules and partnerships ensures you will always be just one channel short of having everything you need.
It’s not the only possible future, but it seems like the one we usually get.