Over the past few years, we’ve heard recurrent calls and/or predictions that higher education will soon be “unbundled”. What does this term mean, exactly?
It’s a metaphor that’s been used in more than one way. The unbundling allusion is mostly to the music industry which has seen technology allow consumers to unbundle its main product (albums) into smaller discrete chunks (songs), but there are also allusions here to the cable TV industry and to journalism. Universities, it is argued, provide a whole bunch of disparate services, not all of which are of equal quality or are equally desired by the customer. So why not have them unbundle their products (depending on the writer, this is either something devoutly to be encouraged or simply a long-term inevitability to be prepared for) and allow students to pick and choose between institutions and mix/match the offerings of various competitors?
Now, a fair question at this point is “what services, exactly, are to be unbundled”? This varies somewhat depending on the author. At the most basic level, authors who write about this agree that the teaching function and the certification function need to be unbundled (something I’ve written about recently). This would – in theory – allow students to take courses from multiple institutions and mix and match them into their own self-directed program.
But some people go much further. American teacher-turned-venture capitalist Michael Staton, for instance, suggests that universities actually provide 12 different sets of services including content delivery (classes), pathways and sequencing (the arrangement of classes into a degree), a signal of educational achievement (credentials), provision of an affiliate network (friends made at school, alumni), meta-content (learning to think about how to think), and a rite of passage and a culture of personal exploration.
Now, Staton’s model is useful if all we are trying to conceptualize is the various “products” which a university is actually selling (or bundling, if you will). Most universities don’t actually think about this in a very clear manner; certainly not to the extent that they could explain to you how they distribute their resources across each of the “products”. But Staton is at least half-serious in saying that other organizations could do these jobs just as well as universities, and that one could imagine students bundling together their own experience from different institutions’ offerings (if you want a sense of how he imagines this playing out, read this piece he authored a few years ago.
It’s an interesting idea. The problem is that there is no evidence students actually want an unbundled experience. Unbundling requires each student to knit together her own education experience from across various providers and platforms which is, to put it mildly, an enormous hassle. Contrary to what the unbundling enthusiasts believe, the fact that the university integrates so many services in a single offering is one of the most important things it has going for it.
That said, simply being an integrator of services isn’t an argument for being the provider of said services. Universities could outsource some of these functions, and in some places, they already do. Already we see institutions starting to outsource certain student service functions which used to be considered core (like course advising). In Europe, what we call “student life” functions are often performed by agencies outside the university (living quarters are sometimes managed by para-statal agencies which serve all the institutions in a city rather than just a single school). Who’s to say it might not be better for all concerned if universities hired specialist companies to better manage content & sequencing of degrees, to measure skills acquisition in a degree outside of simple content mastery, or to build and provide access to cultivated global social networks for students?
In other words, while there may not be much demand for students to purchase unbundled services, there may be some gains to be had in universities unbundling the provision of services. Worth a ponder, anyway.