Proposal for a New Model for Higher Education


Unbundling Higher Ed

In 2000, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid described how higher education has been the tight bundling of three related but separate services: teaching, assessment, and credentialing. Teaching and learning is the first thing that comes to mind. I have been a professor for over 25 years now. Lately though I see the question about how much you can learn on the Internet, why do we need colleges and universities? That question stems from the point that Brown and Duguid were making. Higher education is not simply about taking classes. It is also about receiving grades for those classes on a transcript that shows what you have learned. Even more importantly, a bachelor’s degree is not simply taking 120-credits of classes. It demonstrates someone who has completed an established curriculum.

The last time I checked, YouTube did not assess what its viewers learned nor did it have a list of what videos to watch and in what order to learn a particular topic. Even MOOCs and online courses generally do not provide the credential provided by a university degree. While it is true that learning has never been more accessible to more people, it is also true that access to learning is only part of the story.

The most important role that professors play in teaching is not in delivering the content. It is in deciding what content should be delivered, including what resources to support learning. As content has exploded, the quality of that content has remained uneven. A professor curates what is important to learn and the best way to learn it.

At the end of learning, professors also assess how well the learner has learned. This is reflected in grades, and when a student has earned satisfactory grades in the right courses, this leads to a degree.

The idea that Brown and Duguid were putting forward is what happens if one breaks up the traditional bundle of content, assessment, and credentialing. Over the last year I have been revisiting this prospect, and it has led me to the idea of a new model for a university. This is not the only model that is possible, and I do not claim it to be superior to the existing model. I see it as an alternative approach.

A Model for an Unbundled University

My new model for a university starts with establishing learning outcomes for students at the course and program level. Learning outcomes will be based on career and other requirements that employers are looking for in employees. A student who completes a course or a series of courses should know what they are going to learn and what they have learned. Where this model diverges from traditional higher education is that the university does not over courses to teach this content. Content development is expensive, and there are many options available for learning. Learners will earn credit in this new university by demonstrating competency against these learning outcomes.

Learners can demonstrate competency by providing documentation of courses completed at a traditional college or university. Documentation can also be provided for non-academic studies such as seminars, online courses, and work-related training. The idea is that the student can personalize their study based on what they have already studied or by seeking out new learning opportunities. Learners can also demonstrate competency by providing examples of projects and experience related to the learning outcomes.

In the new university, the student applies for credit for a course with documentation of how they have met the outcomes of the course. Once the student has successfully received credit for a series of courses, they can earn a certificate for the learning outcomes represented by the cluster of courses. For example, a degree in entrepreneurship would have a set of courses around marketing. Completing those courses would make the student eligible for a marketing certificate. This creates value for the learner, because she can receive credentials on the path to the larger degree. A traditional college degree takes four years to achieve. Certification provides achievements along the way.

The new university would provide a list of recommended learning resources to make it easier for students to find what they need to learn. By decoupling the actual teaching from assessment of the learning, the new university can operate at a significantly lower cost model than traditional higher education. This means that the degree can be offered at a much lower price point than traditional higher education.

A few universities have started to offer a competency model of learning, but none of these have fully decoupled from teaching. They do not provide learners the flexibility to learn elsewhere and receive recognition for those experiences. Other universities offer prior learning assessment where a learner can receive credit from learning elsewhere, but the amount of prior learning assessment is limited and cannot be used for an entire degree. Traditional universities are constrained by federal, state, and accreditor regulations that establish a variety of rules for colleges and universities. A new university without teaching and learning embedded within the university would exist outside of these constraints. In many ways, the new university would be more like certification bodies that certify individuals, as CompTIA, one of the leading organizations in information technology certification.

The origin of this concept came from discussions with an educator from Kazakhstan. His goal was to provide a U.S.-style education at a price point affordable in developing economies. In this model, the cost per course could be as low as $30 per course or $3600 for an entire bachelor’s degree. The fees would pay for evaluation of the student’s documentation for a course. The idea would be that the new university would partner with local universities and organizations that could provide support and assistance to students.

This new university would not replace the experience of a traditional university, especially the experiences that occur outside of the classroom. It would go beyond existing online universities by replacing the virtual classroom with a classroom with no walls, allowing students to learn where, when, and how they want. By doing so, the new university can provide a flexible and cost-effective path to a degree.

I try to be an out-of-the-box thinker, and this is a pretty radical idea, even by my own standards. I am open to discussions with others who are interested in exploring this and other ideas that go beyond traditional higher education. I believe that the thinking that got us to this point will not get us to what’s next. So what are the ideas that will lead to new forms of higher education?