Ongoing Unbundling of Higher Education & The MOOC University

Several months ago, I was at the Education Innovation Summit, having a post-dinner conversation with a venture capitalist.  After learning about what I do for a living, he asked me what I saw as the most significant trends in higher education. I explained that I see promise in the open learning movements, but that one of the most disruptive shifts that I expect to see in the next 4-8 years is the unbundling of the traditional schooling experience, especially in higher education. “Higher education is here to stay,” I explained, “but the traditional residential University experience will be much less common and more students will opt for a personalized path.”

That traditional experience will continue to be available to those who have the interest and resources for it, but this unbundling is well underway.

  • Organizations are creating gap year experiences that provide students with the opportunity to earn credit through their experiences and then transfer them to a school of choice.
  • Students are mixing and matching courses from multiple schools to accommodate their budget and preferences (e.g. taking community college courses online to transfer them back to the University where the plan to complete a BA/BS).
  • Others, as I note in a post on self-blending, are taking MOOCs to study for and get feedback on work in their traditional University courses.
  • In terms of the community life during college, there is a long tradition of students seeking off-campus housing and recreating their own sub-communities around common interests, shared goals, or just the desire to connect with others on their own terms.

These are only a few of the many ways that people choose to unbundle the one-price package of the traditional residential undergraduate experience. I expect to see much unbundling in the future, especially the emergence of vibrant and inspiring communities of learners where there may be no actual course offerings for credit.  Instead, there might be learning coaches, peer-coordinated events, ample opportunity for a community experience. The residents/members will pursue their education through online courses, informal study in MOOCs, or low residency programs. Whenever I speak about this, I have to admit that this is not a neutral prediction of a disinterested scholar.   I am excited about this prospect and I hope to support and encourage the development of unbundling. I also do not see this as a necessary threat to higher education institutions, although I do think it is a wake-up call and an invitation to take part in this new transformation, even building partnerships and shared events with these emerging communities.

Until last week, I did not realize that a wonderful example of such a community is already in place. During the recent online Homeschool Conference (which was really more of an alternative education event), I learned about the the Black Mountain Self Organized Learning Environment for Higher Education. Informed by the work of Sugata Mitra on SOLEs (think TED Talks and The Hole in the Wall Experiment), this community is a prime example of thoughtful unbundling (or even unschooling) in higher education. At this point, I know little more than what I read on their site, but from what I can tell, they have a workable funding model, an amazing facility, a list of fascinating projects, an impressive network, and a team of passionate and talented people. Consider for example, this MOOC Campus article.

I am excited to see how this develops,  as it has great promise to empower many people and to inspire similar initiatives around the world. As this initiative grows, expect to see dozens of similar (but likely smaller) efforts to appear across the United States in the next three to five years. My guess is that we will first see them in University towns as well as a few rural and remote locations with low-cost housing but a solid infrastructure for staying connected online.

Of course, given my longstanding research on educational innovation and edupreneurship, I can’t wait to explore the possibility of heading down to North Carolina for a visit!


Posted in blog, customized learning, education, innovation, Open Learning, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.