Last week I turned 30, in my head I am still 22, but I more and more catch myself referring to things that today are considered “out of date” (my former first year students used to remind me of that). For instance, an actual CD album is not that common anymore (at least the physical disc is not). CD’s and singles as I know them from a record store, in a box, with a nice booklet, are (being) replaced by online streaming services. People can customize their own music by making playlists, cherry picking songs from various albums and artists, without having to buy the whole collection that we found on a traditional CD album by an artist. Back in the days (the awesome 90s) I was really happy with my CD player (which played 1 CD at a time), and I played my favourite songs of only that album by programming the player to play only those songs that I liked most, which was complicated (no touch screens, only 2 buttons, it took ages to do that) … Of course it is very nice that I now have my customized playlists that I can access at all times, and can add or delete songs whenever I want with just one slide or click on the screen. But it also makes me wonder… Artists make CD albums, with a certain coherence and idea of build up behind it. Maybe it is a collection of songs about a very important period in the life of an artist, all highlighting certain emotions and aspects, and they only make sense together, collected as a group. Do my playlist, with a collection of numerous songs, that I bluntly put together because I like them (for no specific reason sometimes) have the same value? Do all those songs need a context, and the build up to do them right?

The internet has made it possible to change traditional services and products that serve bundled, in some sense standard, services by offering unbundled, customizable and independent alternatives. Just like with the CD album, also journalism and TV are being disrupted as they offer stand alone “units” that can be customized to, for example, individuals’ specific standard or needs. This phenomenon is referred to as “unbundling”. Similar forces are beginning to affect the education sector. Will higher education go the way of music albums?


The case of unbundled education

So, what would be considered “unbundled education”? In a nutshell: Unbundling in education basically means that courses are being separated from their related degrees or curricula the way individual songs have been broken away from albums. That could mean, for instance, that someone could take a calculus course from one university professor and a marketing course offered at another University, and build his or her own degree, one class at a time, from the best professors. This is in a way, making an educational playlist, with cherry picking the courses that you find most interesting or relevant.

The rise of the Open Online Education, and increasing popularity of for example MOOCs, are putting more pressure on traditional higher learning institutions, and their traditional bundled offerings. Where new technologies and platforms give rise to unbundled units or courses, and make it more efficient and cost effective to offer this, traditional universities are providing bundled package deals: a degree or a curriculum, with sometimes high costs (especially compared to their online open equivalents) … As it looks like now, this could be a time that education will be reformed, just like with the music industry… However, arguments for unbundling ignore that, in higher education, the traditional rules of cost and demand are not comparable to that of the music industry. The most expensive “products”, that is: degrees from top universities, are still high in demand. Also, a music purchase is a hedonic purchase with minimal cost and low risk of bad decision making. Choosing the right university, conversely, often involves years of research and planning. People do not choose education based on separate courses, they base it on a total program, the reputation of the university and its staff. This is still the way the majority of “consumers” of education behave (even when currently the discussion about relevance of certain study programs are under scrutiny since the labor market is saturated, or even declining in those fields). I think the majority of the consumers are not ready to let go of the old values and views of education yet. This will be something that takes more time. The relative immature of (perceived) quality open online education plays (in my opinion) a major role in that. Policies and quality assurance for unbundled online courses are currently not comparable to that of traditional education, let alone the perception of good quality by consumers. There is probably a long way to go before people perceive unbundled courses (in the from of for example a MOOC) at the same quality level as traditional education, and also employers will value them in the same way. Although this all sounds like there is a long way to go, unbundling and the potential of open online education is still making its way into the world of education, and the already existing initiatives are examples of a promising future (as a replacement or as complement of traditional education). You could say, we are still at the start of a real educational paradigm shift.


Concluding, there is certainly a trend going on in education that is directed towards unbundling of education. There are striking similarities between the development in the music industry and education, and the disruption that is going other industries as well made possible by the internet and technologies. However, education is embedded in society in a very different way than those industries. Policy aspects, organizational aspects, technological immaturity (both in the pedagogical and technical way), and certainly the way people perceive education will definitely make this process different. Will traditional education in the long run be unbundled? Who knows… Meanwhile, I try to work out what those aspects are in the context of my PhD project, and listen to my rather disorganized playlists…

Author MartineSchophuizen

Martine’s background lies in Psychology and Learning Sciences as she holds a Bachelors degree in Cognitive Psychology, and a Masters degree in Management of Learning (Maastricht University). After her studies she was a management trainee at a large dutch corporate telecom company. After that, she got the chance to go back into the academic world and had some hands on teaching experience as a lecturer at Maastricht University. She is now working as a PhD candidate at the Welten Institute of the Dutch Open University in Heerlen. Her research is centred around the question to what extent Open Online Education (OOE) is embedded in higher learning institutions. She will mainly focus on the organizational (pre)conditions that lead to succes/failure of OOE, the effect of Open Online Education on the organization, and the contribution it has towards the quality of education.

More posts by MartineSchophuizen

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Most people can’t concentrate and listen no longer than 8minutes. So. that’s not an inviting perspective for MOOCS as part of your ‘cd’ education.
    Education is also creating a systematic body of knowledge from which you act to solve problems and understand what you see or where you are: “context drives meaning”.
    Otherwise, you will never go beyond point solutions. Personally I don’t think that will serve mankind in the longer run.

    Like learning to plau the violin: you need to systematically train skills. That’s one part. And, above, you can apply these skills and make music, whether Mozart, jazz or whatever. But leaving out the systematic training, I don’t think we should go there.

  • MartineSchophuizen says:

    Hi Frans, thank you for your comment.

    I just used the comparison with the music industry and education to illustrate the concept of unbundling. By no means should education be just listening, also not in MOOCs and other open online education, or any education form for that matter.

    I am not aware of your view on Moocs, platforms as EDx and coursera, but I can make an educated guess… I know your critical view towards tech and online, and your concerns and critique on the assumption that it is good for society/mankind. I am aware of the technical imperative, and that this should not always be the case, tech is not always just happening like a tsunami, that is not what I am advocating (I am not advocating anything at the moment, just looking around and observing what is actually is going on). I am very much open for other views. You know I like to stay critical towards my own work (I am trying to avoid tunnel vision). Therefore, I also think that you can’t dismiss OOE and it’s contribution to mankind in a positive sense. There is simply too little known about the effects of OOE and context and factors that are involved with it on supra-macro, macro, meso and micro level (from mankind to individuals), to draw any conclusions of succes or failure (if we even need to make a judgement like that). I hope you are also open for that. Things like informal sharing of knowledge, and maybe even the forming of someones self can be done in OOE as good as in traditional education, we don’t know yet… Sure there are many challenges when a new educational form is being developed, especially for skills (not only music, but also in health sciences and medicine). But who says those things should already be discounted in an OOE context? Why not look for possibilities? I also sense an assumption that traditional education can provide in this already, but that is in my opinion maybe even a bigger tunnel vision, by no means traditional education is perfect, isn’t it just a too easy comparison because that is what we are already used to and know a lot about?

  • MartineSchophuizen says:

    A good example of unbundled courses (in the form of MOOCs) and the contribution to quality of life is: Kiron University. This is an non-profit organization that made several study programs by collecting MOOCs from different universities/providers and supplying them to the refugees. If the refugees then finish their program, Kiron University makes sure that companies are willing to give these individuals a traineeship/job afterwards. It is non-profit, made possible by unbundled courses (MOOCs), and in my opinion a great example of a possibility of unbundled courses vs. bundled education. Moreover, set apart from the unbundled aspect, undertaking this with traditional education would be really difficult (e.g. costly and practically challenging because of physical locations etc.).

    Check them out:
    Some more background information:

  • Thx for your extensive response Martine. You are quite right we have to get to know a lot of things much better than we do know. Before accepting or dismissing. I accept that.
    E.g., we don’t know what tech does to the process of shaping our identity in early childhood, and so important for the rest of our lifes. We just don’t know.
    I am not dismissing any tech or any viewpoint but we should really much better understand what the impact of newtech is instead of introducing a new ideology about it. That is my viewpoint.

    With respect to learning: meaning always arises in a context. Without context no meaning. So, without contextno learning.
    For me this implies that context has to be made explicit or al least studied. That is a hell of a job.

  • MartineSchophuizen says:

    Thank you Frans, always a pleasure to have a conversation with you (either online or face-2-face). Luckily a lot of research is already in progress, although the pace is sometimes much slower than the developments in society. However, truly making sense of the (upcoming) findings and making it applicable to real life situations takes time,especially if research results a re highly fundamental of nature and the demand for applied knowledge is there. I totally agree with you that for this reason no ideology should be introduced, before we even have a clue what’s going on… This also holds for stigma’s/anti movements…

    And agreed that it is a hell of a job… More questions than answers at this stage…

  • I had a look at Kiron and I can imagine unbundled education may be effective there.

    Refugees know the concept of education, they know what they know and what they need. So, they bring quit a lot of knowledge and experience. Would the concept work with 4 years who still need to be introduced to the concept of education and don’t bring that body of experience and knowledge? Would it work to train a medical doctor?

    Education organized as a series of well chosen educational projects is something we already know for many years in the Netherlands.

    So, I think you ill also have a methodological pitfall whether this unbundled education is successful (how to define success by the way?) because of the people, the urgency of the challenge, or because of the educational choices. Perhaps the people you are going to study are not representative as the more intelligent always understand quicker than others they should accept education as a way to a better life. Your conclusion then will not be about unbundling but about the people in their situation,the concrete needs they have and the maturity they bring.