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Anant Agarwal Headshot

Unbundled: Reimagining Higher Education

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When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today -- with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating -- we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I am often asked where I see the greatest opportunities for residential campuses to improve and evolve for the benefit of future generations of students. And while I do not have the answers, I know that today's students want a broad education, taking courses in languages, engineering, history, literature, math and science. They also want to fold in industry experience and international travel. As a result, many educators are now asking probing questions about traditional degree pathways. Should we require university students to obtain a degree in a specialized field? Should we expect students to know at the age of 18 what they want to do for the rest of their lives? Should universities limit their degree programs to four-year spans? Should the concept of a degree as the defining credential itself be revisited? Shifting from this traditional approach may significantly affect the affordability, efficiency and quality of a college education. It might even change the very manner in which universities are structured, as Jeffrey Selingo describes in his book College UnBound. One key to this shift might be the concept of unbundling many of the components that make up the traditional approach to higher education: time, function and content.

First, what does it mean for higher education to unbundle time? While there are substantial benefits to students coming to campus to work closely together with faculty, we can reexamine why four years on campus is considered to be the magic number for a college degree program. My own degree at IIT Madras in the late 70's was a five-year program, and I still remember the raging debate when they shortened it to four years. Why not imagine an alternative path of lifelong continuous education, where students come into college after having taken the first-year subjects through MOOCs or other AP courses, study for two years to experience what my MIT colleague Sanjay Sarma calls the "magic of campus," then enter the workforce to gain real-world skills, taking MOOCs, community college courses or other online courses as needed throughout their career, in place of the traditional final year? I do acknowledge that although two years might be more affordable, it is unlikely to provide the same rich campus experience as a four-year program.

Second, what might it mean for universities to unbundle function? Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

For instance, 2U and Academic Partnerships work with universities to provide certain functions such as admissions, recruitment and placement of students in addition to support services for professors to create online content. MOOC testing technology may help universities by supplying credentialing of skills learned on-the-job or in online courses. The University of Wisconsin's "Flexible Option" is an innovative program that awards students credit for knowledge obtained through any number of sources such as MOOCs or other courses and verified through assessments. Such options unbundle the functions of competency testing and in-class seat time. With this approach, competency takes precedence over in-class seat time. Competency-based learning is a trend that is gaining steam in the nation's classrooms and is even finding bipartisan support from Congress. In an op-ed written for The Hill, Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) write, "By measuring and assessing 'competencies,' students matriculate with the knowledge of the skills they need to master. Likewise, businesses know what to expect upon hiring these students." However, I must caution that unless our competency testing approaches get a lot more sophisticated, they are unlikely to capture the holistic set of skills we expect our students to acquire in college.

Finally, there is the potential of unbundled content. This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher's team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues. One example is an MIT course called The Introduction to Computer Architecture, created by my colleague Steve Ward, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. Although he created the course, developed the textbook and course materials, including slideware, objectives and outlines, I taught the course using his text and materials on campus. As a new professor, I found this approach of adding to an existing course liberating, as I could focus on helping the students learn and not worry about creating a new course from scratch in a limited amount of time. Professors do this all the time and MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content -- the key being "choice" -- in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

A specific example of unbundling content might be what my colleague from the University of California, Berkeley, Armando Fox, has called "SPOCs": Small Private Online Course (like MOOC, another awkward acronym). With SPOCs, universities can license courses offered through edX or another MOOC provider and incorporate some of the online course material into their own on-campus course. This is just like using another scholar's textbook; the only difference is that the content is delivered not through typeset ink on paper, but via a dynamic bit-mapped display.

No one could have predicted the explosion of interest in MOOCs that has occurred in the past year. Nor can we predict where MOOC technology and research will lead us. But we can examine these innovations and collaborate on how best to use them to transform and re-imagine higher education. Success will lie in experimenting with these new concepts, along with many more we can now only begin to imagine.