June 19, 2018

Unbundling Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

Recent events in higher education suggest a new trend — earning degrees by the course from multiple providers. Are we looking at the iTunes model of unbundled higher ed? Call it alt-HE.

One of Steve Job’s most revolutionary accomplishments was the development of the iTunes/iStore model for music acquisition. Music labels used to bundle artists’ songs in album format. If you only liked two or three songs, you still had to buy the whole album. You can still buy albums, but what Jobs and Apple did was completely unbundle how music is sold. We now buy just those songs we prefer from individual artists, and create our own playlists. Now apply that idea to higher education.

The way one currently earns a diploma (the album) is to obtain all their courses from one provider (the label). Students can certainly choose from among a variety of course selections (from the artists), and occasionally they can earn a credit elsewhere, such as an associated community college, but for the most part only a single institution can provide the whole bundle. This makes a great deal of sense for accreditation purposes. If your university is accredited, then every course and degree earned from it has the seal of approval. Now a new group of providers are bringing courses to the market, and their goal is to do to higher education what Apple did to music.

In last week’s column I shared some observations about change happening within higher education, whether it’s the way careers are morphing or textbooks are being revolutionized. These trends, taken together, may be grouped under an umbrella I referred to as the “alt” movement. Outside of traditional higher education, new forms for delivering college-level courses are being experimented with by both established institutions and start-up firms that see an industry ripe for disruption. Some of these new options are free and others are fee- based. Some are extensions of existing institutions out to reach new audiences, while others are using the Internet business model – make it free and see if it can be monetized. What they all have in common is unbundling. None offers degrees, and even if they did there’s no accreditation to back them up. In time that barrier will likely be eradicated. Recall that for-profit online universities once faced challenges obtaining accreditation in many states, but it is a thing of the past. Their growth was unstoppable, and in time states and accrediting agencies has to capitulate. I expect history to repeat itself for the providers of alt-HE.

Who are they?
Some of the names are familiar. When MIT’s Open Courseware project announced MITx, it was regarded as a major step forward in tackling the issue of how to award credit for a free course. The official site makes it clear that MIT will not award a degree to those who take MITx courses, but it will offer competency testing that can lead to certificates of completion – for a modest fee. What’s less clear is the value of an MITx certificate. Might employers accept them as evidence of acquired skills on par with four-year degrees? Khan Academy is equally well known, and an Inside Higher Ed news report shares some of the founder’s views about how his open learning website could provide competency-based credentialing as opposed to traditional accreditation. While the for-profit provider of economy undergraduate courses, StraighterLine, has yet to directly obtain accreditation approval, it instead has partnered with a growing list of colleges and universities that can provide credit for StraighterLine’s courses. With courses priced between $100 and $400, why not pick up some credit for introductory courses that can count towards a diploma. Then there are some new entries into the open course market, such as Udacity, Coursera, Good Semester and Udemy.  These newer competitors are starting off with just a few courses, mostly free, but they give the impression that as many different providers become available a strikingly different model of higher education – alt-HE – could emerge. It is reasonable to imagine a system where students could patch together courses from all of these different providers to assemble a highly customized, personal learning program that leads to a college degree from an accredited institution.

Power to the student
Imagine a scenario in which a student could choose to earn  credits from multiple institutions in the pursuit of a best-of-breed higher education. Need an introductory course delivered online? Just do some shopping to see which provider offers the best selection and pricing. In search of a disciplinary capstone course needed for graduation? Choose from among the universities in your region that offer it. Some controls would be needed; higher education already suffers from too many sham institutions selling worthless diplomas.  Be it traditional accreditation or some new form of verifying and credentialing completed courses, a new approach would need a new system to provide accountability. Technology should make any variation on an unbundled higher education system feasible, particularly the awarding of diplomas based on credits accumulated from multiple institutions.

Alt-Ac libraries
What about academic libraries? What’s their role in an unbundled higher education system? It would depend on the extent to which the new system would displace the traditional one. It seems likely that the providers of unbundled degrees, whether primarily OER like MITx or profit-driven like StraighterLine, would have little need for physical libraries. For one thing, no library means significant cost saving which helps keep tuition low or non-existent. These organizations have no research agendas nor do they seek grants, so there would be no faculty needing huge book and journal collections.  Just as the case is now with some online higher education providers, library services, if available, are marginal. They can always purchase access to a set of resources that would adequately qualify for whatever passes as accreditation. They might even go to the trouble to pay a librarian to look after all of it for them.

Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.

Doom and gloom?
Am I painting a scenario in which traditional higher education and their academic libraries have no future? If it reads that way that’s certainly not the intent. I believe many traditional colleges and universities will continue to thrive and provide the type of experience that many students still want, although the number of families who can afford the tuition is likely to decline. Just anticipate fewer traditional institutions,  and fewer academic libraries supporting them.

It’s the affordability crisis in higher education that’s creating the opportunity for the free or low-cost course option. The growing popularity of unbundled higher education also demonstrates there is a huge global audience for these courses; citizens around the world are seeking higher education that is unavailable or too costly in their own community. The forward-thinking traditional universities are looking at how they can capitalize on that market. Doom and gloom? Not exactly. The message is that change, disruptive and transformative change, is on the horizon for higher education. Academic librarians in the traditional sphere should watch closely as alt-HE unfolds, and think about how they can best support all learners in this new world of higher education.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.



  1. Mary Kaye Hooker says:

    How does OCLC’s World Share Management Service or WorldCat Express relate to your comments on the future of academic libraries?

  2. Hi Mary Kaye. Thanks for your question.

    I’m not sure that either of these OCLC resources would have much impact on the scenario I’m sharing in my column. To my way of thinking they’re not particularly different from any other resources that academic libraries use to collect, organize and distribute content. Any of the new alt-he providers could acquire them for their students or point their students to existing resources at other institutions. Another possibility is that an alt-HE provider might enter into a partnership with an academic library to allow access to these resources for the students in their unbundled courses. It’s not the resources that will impact the future of academic libraries, but how the industry will be re-organizing itself to meet the needs of a new generation of learners. We need to figure out how we fit into this new structure – so that we can continue to leverage OCLC and other resources to provide high quality library and research services to our community members.

  3. The ‘for-profit’ model and this so called ‘un-bundled’ approach to higher education are just more of the same old, same old smoke and mirrors. Just like ‘No Child Left Behind’ these pitiful excuses for real education will simply continue and compound the systemic dumbing down of the American populace. But who cares as long as there is a quick buck to be made, right?