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I turned 30, in my head I am still 22, but I more and more catch myself referring to things that today are considered “out of date” (my former first year students used to remind me of that).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…