I’m at the Knewton Symposium – an event focusing on the future of digital learning. This is the second year that I’ve attended. It’s a small event (last year had ~20 attendees, this year it’s closer to 60+). Knewton brings in a range of speakers and leaders in education, ranging from startups to big edtech companies and publishers to faculty and advocates for some type of change. The conversations are diverse, as can be expected when publishers and open education advocates as well as VC firms and academics share the same stage.
The narrative of educational change is more stable than it was even a few years ago and it’s reflected in this symposium. In 2011, everything was up in the air: universities were dead, faculty would be replaced by MOOCs, California would solve its education crisis by partnering with a small startup, and so on. Now the narrative has coalesced around: 1. economics and funding, 2. access and affordability, 3. innovation and creativity, 4. data and analytics, 5. future university models. While I’m interested in all five of those narratives, particularly the way in which these are being framed by university leaders, vendors and startups, and politicians, I’d like to focus here on one aspect of the conversation around future university models: unbundling.
Unbundling is an appealing concept to change mongers. The lessons of the album and mp3′s is strong with these folks. MP3s lead to newspapers which lead to music and media in general. Since change mongers (a species native to Silicon Valley but now becoming an invasive species in numerous regions around the world. Frankenfish comes to mind) do not have much regard for nuance and detail, opting instead for blunt mono-narratives, unbundling is a perfect concept to articulate needed change.
There are a few things wrong with the idea of unbundling in education:
1. Unbundling is different in social systems than it is in a content only system. An album can be unbundled without much loss. Sure, albums like The Wall don’t unbundle well, but those are exceptions. Unbundling a social system has ripple effects that cannot always be anticipated. The parts of a social system are less than the whole of a social system. Unbundling, while possible in higher education, is not a zero sum game. The pieces on the board that get rearranged will have a real impact on learners, society, and universities.
2. When unbundling happens, it is only temporary. Unbundling leads to rebundling. And digital rebundling results in less players and less competition. What unbundling represents then is a power shift. Universities are today an integrated network of products and services. Many universities have started to work with partners like Pearson (ASU is among the most prominent) to expand capacity that is not evident in their existing system.
Rebundling is what happens when the pieces that are created as a sector moves online become reintegrated into a new network model. It is most fundamentally a power shift. The current integrated higher education system is being pulled apart by a range of companies and startups. Currently the university is in the drivers seat. Eventually, the unbundled pieces will be integrated into a new network model that has a new power structure. For entrepreneurs, the goal appears to be to become part of a small number of big winners like Netflix or Google. When Sebastian Thrun stated that Udacity would be one of only 10 universities in the future, he was exhibiting the mentality that has existed in other sectors that have unbundled. Unbundling is not the real story: the real issue is the rebundling and how power structures are re-architected. Going forward, rebundling will remove the university from the drivers seat and place the control into the re-integrated networks.