What does it mean to unbundle Higher Education?

An increasing trend that we hear more and more is the unbundling of higher education. Today many services traditionally being offered within universities can be supported by partner organizations which could assist universities to achieve their goals in a flexible or more cost-effective way. Hereby some trends and transformations that can be helpful to think when exploring the challenges of higher education.

1. Highly qualified staff and consolidation of institutional capacities: Flipped classroom[1] or MOOCs are usually presented as a univocally positive disruptive solution. However, some of the existing pieces of evidence are not exactly promising when analyzing the learning impacts of these approaches. These so-called disruptions prove to be less effective particularly for learners with less developed meta-cognitive capacities or for those who are coming from underserved populations[3]. Rather than suggesting to ignore or avoid those innovations, the recommendation is to address, promote and develop mechanisms to enhance the skill and capacities of educators and administrators who design and manage these learning innovations (ensuring high levels of digital competence among the staff is regarded of major relevance). Additionally, it is considered of value to facilitate the creation of education and technology research centers which can track, monitor and improve the effectiveness of novel approaches.

Online learning shows to be a very cost-effective form of learning (enabling massive enrolment of learners), but in different countries, it also deals with a significant volume of students who drop out during the online programs. Often literature overemphasizes the benefits of online learning, nevertheless, I would argue to also recognize the costs or challenges of implementing large scale online learning policies without carefully analyzing the risks or limitations of these flexible ways of teaching and learning. If the existing knowledge (research) in this field is not considered during the design of online education, it might lead to significant difficulties later[4].

2. Flexibility and adaptable capacity: In the context of the 4.0 economic revolution, it is helpful to provide opportunities for better combining learning while working. For the sake of facilitating up-skilling and re-skilling of workers more versatile and flexible learning path will need to be developed among the current and the next generation of workers. In addition to the competency-based approach, it is recommended to facilitate the creation of “modular” apprenticeships – where those on apprenticeship programs could be able to customize what they learn according to specific skills they want, rather than following a pre-set program[5].

*Good practice: Tool for monitoring skills demanded from the market (by NESTA) which can be of great benefit both for Higher Education organizations as well as for learners to decide their career development.

3. Blended models: One approach that can be emphasized here is to design programs which embrace different blended learning modalities. That means not only offering all the resources online for learners to learn by their own but also to include into the instructional design face-to-face meetings in which professionals can connect with peers and other colleagues. The face to face experience shows to be a great motivation as well as an effective form of reducing the dropout of online students. Another example of blended learning could be to combine traditional classes with some courses offered by local or international MOOCs.

4. Complex thinking: Although the focus on increasing the access to STEM programs is considered of major relevance, it could be also valued to facilitate the development of not (exclusively) technical skills. That not only refers to the importance of developing socio-emotional skills, future workers will (also) need to understand how technology is being adopted by society. That can be addressed by consolidating the benefits of multidisciplinary research centers (as well as the problem-based approaches to teaching and learning) where the interaction between different disciplines and knowledge fields is prominent. (*see Robots Proof Education [6])

5. Analytic tools: It is considered helpful for this context the adoption of learning analytics tools which could be assimilated by administrators of higher education. These tools and techniques can easily support to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the educational programs in digital environments. The more digital learning becomes the more important will be to understand the effectiveness (and the weakness) of these virtual learning environments. This information can be of great help not only for monitoring the use of technology but also to provide evidence-based training to the mentors of online students.

6. Virtual mobility: Regarding the internationalization, it might be helpful also considering the concept and practices related to virtual mobility, an approach broadly adopted in higher education in the European Union[7].

7. Open culture: Open science and open data initiatives are increasingly promoted within the universities (as known this is an approach that scientific journals and publishers are increasingly adopting worldwide). Likewise, it is key to define guidelines, recommendations, and support to facilitate when possible the adoption of open-source software which can be used both during learning as well as in educational management contexts.

8.Openness and quality: Although Open Educational Resources (OER) are a good idea, they have been presented in higher education as a great opportunity at least since the beginning of the last decade (2001 with OCW at MIT) however its impact is far from being fully reached. Concerns regarding quality and relevance seem to be valued equally or more than simply the opportunity of reducing costs. Therefore, in addition to what has been already mentioned, the adoption of OER approaches need to be supported by high-quality assurance mechanisms to ensure that the use of open-licensed educational resources guarantees to reach the higher quality standards (for further information read this IDRC publication [8]).

9. Unbundling certs: Certification wise it is suggested to explore flexible practices of certification or other means to recognize/validate the knowledge and the skills developed by learners. Not only to adopt more efficient processes but also to facilitate the shareability of these certificates. This can be of great benefit to speed up the recognition or validation of knowledge and expertise acquired in higher education programs (but also in other contexts). [9]. (See blockcerts.org/)

10. Data sensitive awareness: If higher education institutions want to embrace a technology-driven learning experience then it will be important to ensure that have developed the proficiency and the responsibilities associated with data lead decision-making. Indistinctively whether it concerns e-learning, learning analytics, adaptive learning or the use of artificial intelligence, it is considered of utmost relevance to implement (and constantly revise) clear and student-centered transparent policies regarding privacy, legal and ethical aspects associated with the use of data[10].

11. Adaptive learning: Although is relevant to explore and support the potential of personalized learning, it’s also recommended to address the limitations identified in relation to adaptive learning technologies[11]. Here is critical to support the existing education and technology research organizations which can assist universities in the process of deploying, monitoring and adjusting these novel solutions into different learning environments.

* There are many other dimensions that can be added, but here a final idea: without affecting the speed of innovation, it is also important to think in the associated costs of incorporating technology without taking into account or ensuring the key conditions (and the qualified human resources) needed to promote these changes within higher education institutions.



[1] Chen, K. S., Monrouxe, L., Lu, Y. H., Jenq, C. C., Chang, Y. J., Chang, Y. C., & Chai, P. Y. C. (2018). Academic outcomes of flipped classroom learning: a meta‐analysis. Medical education52(9), 910-924. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/medu.13616

[3] “the growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries” (source: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/363/6423/130)

[4]   Bawa, P. (2016). Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244015621777

[5] Wired (2018) The Open University started as a radical idea, now it’s in trouble. – Wired UK https://www.wired.co.uk/article/open-university-uk-enrollment-courses-problems

[6] Aoun, J. E. (2017). Robot-proof: higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press.

[7] Find further information https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/erasmus-goes-virtual-2018-mar-15_en

[8] IDRC (2018) Adoption and impact of all we are in the Global south). https://www.idrc.ca/en/book/adoption-and-impact-oer-global-south

[9] I recommend to consider the IBM concept: New Collar It’s not about degrees, it’s about skills https://www.ibm.com/services/learning/ites.wss/zz-en?pageType=page&c=N807151X80720G91

[10] Open University (2019) Privacy at the OU http://www.open.ac.uk/about/main/strategy-and-policies/policies-and-statements/website-privacy-ou

[11] Two relevant reports which highlight some of the limitations of adaptive learning approaches can be found here: