The term ‘unbundling’ has many meanings in the research literature and in practice. In practice, unbundling has manifested itself in different ways in different educational cultures and contexts. In North America, unbundling is primarily perceived as credit accumulation, credit transfer and more recently micro-credentials (e.g. Nanodegrees from Udacity and MicroMasters from edX); as predicted by Selingo a few year ago (Selingo, 2013). The online platform OERu have over thirty university partners from five continents, and offer fee paying credit-bearing courses to learners online; one of their goals is:
“providing pathways for students to achieve credible credentials for approved courses based solely on open education resources (OER). OER means learning materials that have been released under an intellectual property license, permitting their free use or re-purposing by others” (OERu, 2016)
In the UK, unbundling is currently viewed as the disaggregation of learning into smaller parts which offers, in theory at least, opportunities for HEIs to separate traditionally integrated components and reimagine new products and services (Yuan et al., 2013). There is evidence of significant demand from learners for flexible online learning opportunities; FutureLearn, the social learning platform founded by the Open University and a number of leading UK universities, including Leeds, is approaching 6 million registered users. FutureLearn are now offering accredited learning opportunities, in the form of standalone credit-bearing courses, bundles of courses and full online degrees. The credit achieved from standalone courses can be used towards a degree to be taken at any University which will accept it, or used to build a portfolio of awards from a range of universities and other accrediting bodies, in lieu of a degree. These disruptive innovations will continue to challenge traditional HE providers in the sector to describe their offer in a way that is distinctive and attractive to an increasingly technology savvy, and global, user base.
Marketization refers to the increasing presence of alternative (private) providers offering HE provision alongside universities, often through online means and at lower costs, and the emerging partnerships between universities and private providers to offer accredited learning at a wide range of levels from foundation, through undergraduate and postgraduates degrees to continuing professional development and corporate training. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business Professor termed the ‘father of disruption’ holds extreme views about the future of universities as a result of unbundling, marketization and digital technology:&
“Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid.” (Christensen, 1997)
In the UK and elsewhere, partnerships between universities and private providers are increasing. The well-established partnership between the University of Liverpool and Laureate is often cited in the literature. Robertson & Komljenovic (2016) conceptualise such initiatives as ‘market-making’. They believe that the advent of MOOCs and the modularity brought about by digitisation are not only being construed as forms of educational improvement, but also as a result of economic necessity, because the groupings of the various components of educational provision promise hard-to-ignore efficiencies (Sharrock, 2015). These business models, based on different flavours of unbundling – some more mature and some at an early stage of development – are in turn leading to newly constituted relationships between institutions and private partners or providers; between different institutional entities; and between actors with various roles within the institutions.
Leeds is at the forefront of these innovations, making full use of external platforms to diversify provision to learners, and through partnerships with commercial organisations to offer fully online degrees. The Leeds-Pearson partnership, which will deliver 12 new Masters level online distance learning programmes over the next few years, is making best use of digital technology to offer accessible, flexible and engaging education to individuals from around the globe. In our increasingly globalised world, graduates of these programmes will be experienced in working with individuals from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, and skilled in using existing knowledge to solve emerging problems that affect our society. These programmes will be delivered entirely online using digital technology to create a personalised, flexible, interactive and collaborative learning environment.
There is growing evidence in the literature that embracing digital technology to enhance students’ learning is effective, and also improves access, flexibility and engagement. However, there are risks with this growing use of digital technology and the involvement of external organisations offering flexible HE provision. As we increasingly ‘unbundle’ Higher Education provision into its component parts (i.e. individual courses), we risk fragmenting the curriculum and in particular removing the vertical progression of courses through qualification levels. Whilst an unbundled curriculum may be attractive to the learner who wishes to ‘pay as they learn’, it not yet clear that employers will recognise or accept collections of courses gathered from diverse institutions. Furthermore, as the number of providers increases, and learners have a large smorgasbord of choice, there will be questions about quality and accreditation that will need to be addressed at all levels. Also, studying a Higher Education qualification entirely online introduces questions about missing out on the holistic benefits of studying on a university campus, including the sense of community, involvement with volunteering and community action, development of interpersonal and life skills, and hands-on experience of research in its many forms. Therefore, many universities will continue to make the case that for most students a campus experience is vital as part of a HE qualification, even if it is limited to a period of time conducting a research project.
In conclusion, it is clear that digital learning can help universities deliver excellent teaching and learning to suit a range of learners, widen access and meet the needs of the university and government policy. At the same time, we must be mindful of the perception that there might be unintended consequences from increased online learning provision. It is incumbent on those in the vanguard to articulate and illustrate the benefits so that students gain from the flexibility and opportunity of online distance learning and employers benefit from the skills it affords.
Neil Morris is Director of Digital Learning and Professor of Education Technology, Innovation and Change at the University of Leeds. Neil is the UK Principal Investigator of an ESRC grant exploring the changing nature of Higher Education as a result of digital technology.