Unbundling higher education and the art of the university

Hazel Christie  There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the ‘unbundling’ of higher education.  But what exactly is this, and what might it mean for our universities?  I had the pleasure this week of hearing Amy Collier from Stanford University reflecting on some of these themes at a DiCE seminar here at the University of Edinburgh.  An hour flew past as she talked about how her interest in this ‘hot topic’ was sparked by the emergence of MOOCs and what these might mean for the nature of the university.

For Amy conversations about unbundling often begin from accounts of the disruption that universities are currently experiencing as they grapple with rising costs, new modes of delivery and questions about whether they represent value for money.  Indeed she suggests that wider debates about the ills of HE exhibit a love affair with the idea of the university as ‘dis-eased’, as costly, inefficient and unscalable.  In short, it is in need of disruption.  And from this rhetoric it is but one small step to the complete unbundling of the university.  To the breaking apart of all its infrastructure and services into different pieces that can be bought and sold in the free market.  So we can hire private companies, for example, to handle careers advising or buy in IT support instead of relying on in-house provision.

I was intrigued by Amy’s suggestion that unbundling is intimately bound up with the idea of the university as broken and that this is the ultimate bedfellow of a depressed global economy.   And she pushed this analysis further, characterising much of the literature on the future of higher education as ‘disaster porn’.  Key to these debates, much of it written by successful business organisations, is the idea that the solution to the broken university is technologically based and can be purchased in the private sector.  But it goes much deeper than this to question the value of higher education itself.  Is the bundled university worth it?  The disaster porn supporters suggest not.  Knewton, one of the major business players in this field, for example, suggests that the bundled university tricks people into believing that its products and services are more valuable than they actually are.  Not to mention the fact that the complexity of the bundle on offer results in a lack of transparency and makes it difficult to perform cost-benefit analyses.  And that it includes things that many students do not use including support services and accommodation.  Wouldn’t it be much better if students could choose to buy some time in a swimming pool or pay to see a counsellor when they needed one as opposed to the university providing these as part of an unwieldy bundle of services?

But what does unbundling actually mean for universities?  Here Amy touched on a range of things that could be broken apart whilst holding on to the fact that unbundling – like any term – is contested and subject to different interpretations.  In principle, as Henry Brady suggests, everything can be unbundled, including content, social networks, accreditation, delivery, assessment and research.  Amy provided some examples of these kinds of unbundling in the US ranging from MOOCs, which disaggregate the faculty role and divorce credit from teaching, to the role of colleges, like Antioch, which encourage students to take courses, typically MOOCs, from outside of their own institution for credit and which unbundle the teaching, accreditation and support of students.  And again, she came back to the disaster porn motif, suggesting that this haunts discussions of unbundling.  Indeed she drew attention to Clay Shirky, a major proponent of unbundling, who likens MOOCs to lightning on a rotten tree.

By returning again and again to the disaster porn analogy, Amy worked to unsettle the assumption that unbundling is the only way forward for (US) higher education.  In particular she focused on the tensions that inhere within this process of breaking universities apart.  Unbundling the faculty role, for example, relies on a tension between the new organisational possibilities offered by technological solutions versus the holistic gains of a bundled education.  As part of this, she questioned whether the ‘art of the university’ might be at risk where students experience the whole university, as a coherent and unified entity, as it was meant to be.  And from here she ventured further into the problems of unbundling, picking up on three issues.

First, the corollary of unbundling is rebundling.   For some commentators, like George Siemens, the processes through which innovations and services get rebundled is the really interesting question. But Amy sounded a cautious note about what happens when universities hand over control for rebundling.  Using the example of Minerva, the for-profit company in San Francisco that requires students to rely on MOOCs for their core curriculum, she questioned what happens to the student experience when the control of the curriculum lives outside of the host institution.   And this leads to harder questions about what she termed the ‘dark side’ of unbundling and about the widening gap between the students who have an educational experience that is primarily bundled – it is campus-based with high quality services provided there – versus the rest who pick and choose from a variety of disaggregated services. What then are the consequences for the broader experiences of learners? And for social justice?

Secondly, it is important to think about the implications of unbundling for teaching and learning.  Here she focused on the potential issues that arise when the faculty role is unbundled.  In principle, the institutional, academic and instructional roles of the faculty can all be unbundled.  But at what cost?  Are we, as Bruce Macfarlane suggests, seeing the emergence of the para-academic?  And is this healthy?  Amy suggested a deficit of research in this area; we do not really know if unbundling is better because it allows staff to specialise in roles that they are good at or if it is problematic for precisely the same reason.  And the same goes for MOOCs where the courses are designed by people who do not teach on them.  Do we want this?  Here she drew on Vernon Smith’s distinction between craft and virtual assembly models of teaching and learning.  In craft models the faculty are intimately involved with all stages of the teaching process, and this is often associated with high levels of autonomy and professional pride.  In the virtual assembly model, by contrast, faculty report a loss of professional identity based on feelings of being an autonomous expert.  So what then are the implications for the student experience and for faculty identity as we unbundle?  And why, as Ernest Boyer so pertinently asks, is the integrated faculty role so desirable?  And is there, as Amy suggested, space to redesign the faculty role as opposed to breaking it apart?

Thirdly, Amy cast her eye on what she called the ‘lost art of the university’.  What if we unbundle the university to the point where the art is lost and we miss out on the serendipity that occurs when services are joined together?  To counter this she pointed to a range of examples of how the university is being redesigned (as opposed to broken apart) so that it better meets the needs of different audiences.  One especially inspiring initiative was ‘A domain of one’s own’ at Mary Washington University.  Here, in a push back against Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Learn and Moodle, the university has parcelled out a small amount of web space to each student.  They then publish material on the site and this is syndicated to a course page.  As Amy explained this is not so much an unbundling of the LMS but a creative redesign of the spaces and places of on-line learning.  Faculty have redefined assumptions about who they are and what they do in a way that contributes to the artistry of the university.

Running through this seminar was a plea for us all to take a long, hard look at the potential costs and benefits that arise when universities unbundle.  Amy cautioned us to attend to what might be lost if the logic of breaking universities apart is followed to its bitter end.  We might, she suggested, be better to concentrate on redesigning the university and indeed she provided some creative examples of this from the US.  But this redesign is difficult to achieve when the prevailing ethos and culture is embedded in a discourse about the dis-ease of higher education, which is driven by the demands of global capitalism.  What we need now is a spirited defence of the artistry of the university.  Any takers?





  1. […]  For a more thoughtful and reflective take on the presentation, see Hazel Christie’s post here. Amy’s own post on her visit  can be found […]

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