Flashback: Let Them Eat (Unbundled) Cake!

Oh, look–the “unbundling” folks are back at it, with a spate of recent articles in edtech and “edupreneur” sites dredging up the idea of finding “efficiencies” by stripping off certain components from the “process” of college/university education to make learning (which they define exclusively as degree completion, which should tell you something) more “streamlined.” Josh Kim has a good piece up today on Inside Higher Ed that pushes back against this “unbundling” fetish, rightly suggesting that it will do no more than exacerbate the divide between the privileged and everyone else. But this isn’t a new criticism of “unbundling.” We rail against Bryan Caplan’s blithe lack of self-awareness and is wrongheaded screeds “Against Education,” but let’s not forget that the disruption crowd has been riding this unbundling horse for a while. In fact, yours truly railed against this very trend three years ago, so instead of writing another rage-blog, I’ve decided to repost the original essay. The fact that it is still relevant today is a gloomy reflection on the state of higher education reformism.

So enjoy this piece from the archives. If the “disruptive reformer” crowd can’t be bothered to come up with any new ideas, I’m not gonna write something new, either.

[originally published August 4, 2015. Edited only to fix broken links.]

As the cost-funding-value-sustainability debates careen along their courses in higher education, those of us in the academy who are actually:

a. trying to follow these debates, and

b. invested in the ways in which all this impacts student learning first and foremost,

are being bombarded by confusing claims and counterclaims. Technology will save us, but it will ruin us. It will fix costs and increase them. Students know how to use these tools and they don’t. Faculty are overpaid and underpaid. There is too much focus on rock-star professors and a fixation on adjunct labor. The end is nigh!, we hear. DISRUPTION DISRUPTION DISRUPTION DISRUPTION–this trendy yet ultimately vapid injunction hurls itself at us like a cloud of mosquitoes: individually, not so bad, but collectively, it’s a giant pain in the ass. And amidst all the sound and fury, we stand more confused and frustrated than ever. What amazes me about this swirling ether of reformist, buzzword-saturated discourse is that student learning–THE BEDROCK MISSION OF THIS ENTIRE DAMN ENTERPRISE–has been shuffled to the background, relegated to an implied concern at best, an extraneous complicating factor at worst.That relegation is no surprise, really. The dominant theme among those pushing the disruption-as-reform narrative is economics. It’s singularly obsessed with costs. College costs too much! They say. Well, no shit, we say. Maybe it’s because state funding as a share of public university budgets is at a historic low? Maybe it’s because Pell Grants, among other forms of aid for students outside the financial elite, have been repeatedly eviscerated by Congress? Maybe it’s because the post-2008 capitalist landscape is one of devastated family incomes and historically-unprecedented wealth inequality–thus placing higher education out of the reach of those who even ten years ago could afford it? NO, the disruptors reply; colleges and universities must rein in their own costs! Efficiencies, deliverables, and “unbundling” are the new imperatives for higher education. It’s what all the cool kids do (at least the ones cool enough to write higher-ed hit pieces in the New York Times.)

It’s an amazing feat they’ve accomplished, shifting the cost-cutting onus to our institutions, as if we got ourselves into this bind. “Officer-thank god you’re here! That truck crashed into my car, and its driver is staggering around drunk.” “Well, Ma’am, I’m going to have to issue you some citations–your flaming wreck of a car is stopping traffic, and from here it doesn’t look like you have a working brake light, either.” “But Officer, that guy literally destroyed my car! And he’s drunk!” “Well, ma’am, if you aren’t willing to drive defensively, then don’t be on the roads.” In any other situation, this is absurd logic. Yet in the higher ed debate, it’s treated as a fait accompli. If the water’s running out of the jug, maybe we should put the plug back in, rather than just tell everyone they need to drink less.

Ultimately, this disconnect comes down to the interplay of class, race, and privilege. Elite institutions can use temporary funds to cover financial aid increases for students because they can bank on substantial incomes from their stratospheric endowments. Most of us can’t. Elite institutions are not dependent upon enrollment numbers, state aid, or both, for the lion’s share of their yearly operations budgets.Thus, the panaceas currently on offer from the disruption crowd are implicitly aimed at the lesser among us (which is by far the numerical majority of colleges and universities in this country). And the lesser among us institutions serve the students who are themselves the lesser among us socioeconomically: the ones who haven’t gotten the wealthy high schools with scads of AP and college prep courses, the ones who have to work nearly full-time hours to pay for their college education, the ones who haven’t been told they’re the best and brightest since kindergarten and need more of a support structure to succeed academically. But if we’re cutting costs–BECAUSE ALL OF THIS IS OUR FAULT REMEMBER–then those students are ill-served. If you don’t like it, we tell them, go to Stanford. Ma’am, if you can’t drive defensively, then get off the road.

The most dangerous fad in this regard is the fixation on “unbundling” manifested by several cheerleaders for the new, post-rapture disruption landscape of higher ed. Rather than a traditional college major, a “bundle” of courses and requirements, students should be able to “unbundle” college and get rid of all those extraneous things they don’t want to pay for. Then, they can take courses online, for example, from a variety of institutions (Surprise! MOOCs to the rescue!) to build their own degree. Business Law from HarvardX, Discrete Math from Khan Academy, History from Yale Open Courses. Expand that process ad infinitum, and BAM! you’ve made college accessible, affordable, and democratic.



I argue precisely the opposite.*

Unbundling may make “college” (and I would use that term advisedly here) affordable, but it would also make it less accessible and far less democratic. The unbundling approach may work for those who Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “roaming autodidact[s],” people who are the image of a “self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembodied from place, culture, history, markets, and inequality regimes.” The most immediate problem is that the technology may exist for this type of arrangement to work, but it does not exist in the daily lives of a large percentage of students. High-speed internet access, proper hardware and software, and digital proficiency are the sine qua non of college unbundled. There is no space here for students who come out of inner-city schools with outdated–or no–computers, or for rural students who have (at best) dial-up internet connections. There is no place for students who have not acquired the digital literacies necessary to navigate the unbundled landscape. Unbundling is intended for a world where the Digital Divide does not exist. That is not the world most of our students inhabit.

Beyond immediate access, however, lie even more fundamental problems. The implicit assumption of the “unbundling” paradigm is that “bundles” are somehow bad. If we peel off courses and make them available on some sort of internet buffet, we’re told, then students can get their degree more easily and cheaply. But courses are embedded in curricula (program, major, and institutional [i.e., a core]), and curricula are embedded in institutions. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Courses are taught where students learn material, but learning also occurs-for example-within sequential courses, among and between student cohorts, and across disciplinary lines. In other words, learning occurs in bundled relationships. Assessment of learning, and then using that data to “close the loop” and improve the next iteration of courses and programs is part of that bundle. Academic support services are part of that bundle. Institutional identity and pedagogical coherence are part of that bundle. That bundle is the gold standard for student learning and academic success. We know this. Elite institutions can preserve all of it for their students, because they don’t face the unbundling imperative. But for students of less-elite (i.e., most) institutions, it’s welcome to the course buffet. Choose wisely, and good luck making sense of it all at the cashier’s station.

Unbundling is not a democratic vision. It is, rather, an enabler to those who implicitly tell the rest of us, “I got mine, and screw the rest of y’all.” It allows for bad pedagogy to mask itself as salutary “disruption”; its strategy depends on what Paolo Freire called “the banking model” of education, which occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from what both research and practice tells us is effective pedagogy.  It lets rank exclusion legitimize itself as a new, shiny trend. It is built upon, and then in turn sustains, embedded structures of privilege that have already done so much to damage student learning and higher education. It is academic classism. It privileges the lucky–who are always quick to tell us that luck has nothing to do with it–and relegates the rest to a subordinate tier. In an educational landscape that is already riven by inequality–indeed, defined by inequality–unbundling would extend that into a full-blown caste system.

If we are serious when we say things like “just as much learning occurs outside the class,” or “we support student success,” or “academic advising is important,” or “[insert major here] prepares you for more than a job, it empowers you to build your future,” then arguments for unbundling college should trigger your gag reflex. Rather than participating in a debate where solutions such as unbundling are offered to us with a straight face by people who purport to be serious, we must change the debate.

The bundle is worth defending, and its attackers don’t get to tell us how to do it.


*[Disclaimer: I am not a luddite. I am an enthusiastic proponent of educational technology, even online learning. Nor am I defending the academic status quo come hell or high water. I believe that fundamental changes are necessary to extricate higher education from its current crisis-ridden milieu. Indeed, it’s precisely these motivations that inform my critique of the unbundling fetish.]