Unbundling education

July 18, 2008 § 3 Comments

One of the highlights of this week’s PCF5 conference in London was Richard Heller’s presentation on the emerging Peoples Uni.project.

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Peoples-Uni offers online professional development courses to public health workers in developing and emerging economies. Interesting enough in it’s own right, but more interesting is how they do it:

  1. The focus is on teaching and online facilitation, not materials creation. Which means all the energy goes into responding to student needs. All the materials are off the shelf existing open educational resources from places like Johns Hopkins.
  2. All the instructors are volunteers. The volunteer pool includes: a gaggle of retired professors; recent graduates from a public health masters program in the UK; and 30 health care economists. Heller is having to grapple with the kinds of volunteer management issues common in open source projects, but rarely dealt with in open education.
  3. At the end of each course, students have the option of being accredited through tests administered by the Royal Society of Health. This is the same test that students taking similar courses in formal institutions would get. If they pass, they receive a certificate.

The intersection between ‘hacked together volunteer run courses’ and ‘very serious, buttoned-down assessment and accreditation’ is very cool. Right now, almost all education fuses instruction and accreditation. The result is often inflexible, boring instruction driven by the testing process. Unbundling accreditation from instruction changes this. It creates space for innovation on the instruction side, especially when combined with open educational resources. I think we are going to see more of this.

Heller’s presentation was one of about 20 on open educational resources, mostly from poorer Commonwealth countries. Which, really, was amazing. All of the presentations are well documented on WikiEducator. It’s worth taking a look.

§ 3 Responses to Unbundling education

  • […] varying degrees in other venues; for example, Richard Heller’s presentation on an unbundled education model at the PCF5 conference a few years ago. Some of the trends that she points are we’ve […]

  • Professor William K.S. Wang says:

    I have published three articles on the unbundling of higher education (the first in 1975; most are available through an internet search): “The Unbundling of Higher Education,” 1975 Duke Law Journal 53. “The Dismantling of Higher Education,” published in two parts in 29 Improving College and University Teaching 55 (1981) and 29 Improving College and University Teaching 115 (1981) “The Restructuring of Legal Education Along Functional Lines,” 17 Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues 331 (2008)(discusses legal education, but applies to higher education generally); abstract below


    ABSTRACT Currently, law schools tie together five quite distinct services in one package, offered to a limited number of students. These five functions are: (1) impartation of knowledge, (2)counseling/placement, (3) credentialing (awarding grades and degrees), (4) coercion, and (5) club membership. Students do not have the opportunity to pay for just the services they want, or to buy each of the five services from different providers.

    This article proposes an “unbundled” system in which the five services presently performed by law schools would be rendered by many different kinds of organizations, each specializing in only one function or an aspect of one function. Unbundling of legal education along functional lines would substantially increase student options and dramatically increase competition and innovation by service providers. This offers the hope of making available more individualized and better instruction and giving students remarkable freedom of choice as to courses, schedules, work-pace, instructional media, place of residence, and site of learning. Most importantly, this improved education would be available on an “open admissions” basis at much lower cost to many more individuals throughout the nation, or even the world.

    In order to explain how to restructure the existing law school system, this article will discuss the five educational services presently performed by law schools, the disadvantages of tying these services together, a hypothetical unbundled world of legal education, the advantages of the unbundled system, answers to some possible objections to the system, and some recent developments in the use of technology and distance learning in law schools.

    The main theme of this article is the advantage of unbundling. A more modest sub-theme is the benefit of use of technology and distance learning.

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