digital implications,  higher ed,  Research

Critically examining unbundling

Doublespeak [Explore]

I’m on the advisory board for a project led by Laura Czerniewicz in Cape Town and Neil Morris in Leeds, examining the concept of ‘unbundling’ in higher ed. I came across unbundling first of all back in 2000 with Evans and Wurster’s Blown to Bits book. It’s important to remember that at the time, internet business was new, people didn’t know how it would turn out, and many were still saying it wouldn’t be a big thing. So anything that offered a reasonably intelligent analysis was seized upon. There was a lot that was useful in their book, setting out the idea that services that had previously been held together by the glue of physical location, became unbundled when they went online, because that glue was insufficiently strong to keep them together. Their classic example was the car showroom, which had new and used car sales, servicing and financing all in one place. Online, these became separate services. This all made sense, and we saw new car sales online, and finance was certainly affected. But car sales showrooms, still persist…

Like its close cousin Disruption, unbundling has been a favourite philosophy of the silicon valley start up. It has often been applied to education (even, erm, by me). This piece for example boldly states “The bundle of knowledge and certification that have long-defined higher education is coming apart”. The idea has some merit – if education moves online, do we need all the services: content production, examination, accreditation, support, etc to come from one provider? Maybe not, but higher education is not the same as car sales, no matter how much Richard Branson wants it to be. Selecting between those services is difficult, particularly for a learner who is a learner precisely because they don’t know what they don’t know. I know what I need to buy a car, even if I’m not a car expert. So having those elements in one bundle has a certain convenience. In short, the glue is stronger.

But the talk of unbundling is persistent and powerful. So I was pleased to be asked to be on the board of this project because it takes exactly the right approach in my view. It is asking good questions such as: what do people mean by unbundling? What are the drivers and motivation for it? W is the evidence of it in practice? What are the different models of unbundling? What are the impacts on learners, staff, society and business?

It is attempting to look for evidence for these in an unbiased, and rational manner. The problem with concepts like unbundling is that they get peddled by people who have an interest in getting the idea established (because their business depends on it), and then dismissed as nonsense by those of us inside the system, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Research such as this can act as a “bullshit antidote”. One of the dangers is that the commentary Vice Chancellors and Principals get to hear is from the dynamic young software people with their unbundling start up. Being able to point to solid research that says things like “unbundling isn’t really happening on the scale they suggest” or “unbundling works well for these learners, but has these impact on staff” or “this model is viable, but has these costs”, or even “you can safely ignore it”. This is the sort of research we should be providing for a number of ed tech concepts I feel. Luckily as an advisory board member I don’t have to do any of the hard work, just turn up every 6 months and nod sagely.


  • Steve Bamlett


    I think that by actually sharing these initiatives, Martin, it is clear you are doing more than just ‘nodding sagely’.Typical modesty here I think! In fact I think that you are totally on the ball here as usual. I don’t think these initiatives are new though.

    All kinds of socio-historical change force us to realise that certain sets of knowledge, skills and val;ues are often merely bundled together because their service requires such reverence and something like a clerisy to support it. Academic ‘subjects’ and ‘disciplines’ are surely of this nature. Sometimes valuable perceptions are held back because of the resistance to ‘unbundling’ confused with demands for rigour.

    But watch this one. Various stakeholder interests in the status quo will have their knives out and sometimes, unlike you, they don’t take such a measured tone.In the end the project shares similarities with that pioneered by Gregory Bateson as an ‘ecology of mind’.

    All the best


    • admin

      Thanks Steve – I think it’s similar to some of the work people did on digital natives years back to really explore it and look for the evidence. I think we need to not just be dismissive but to have good research we can point to, otherwise we don’t get into the conversations and only the rhetoric is heard.

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