Postsecondary Trending Now: Unbundling

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Until the last decade or two, "going to college" was shorthand for sitting in classrooms several times a week, course by course and semester by semester, for two to four years, and endeavoring to understand the material covered well enough to pass the tests. Taking center stage in each of those classrooms was a faculty member responsible for providing it all: curricular design, lectures, evaluation design, grading, advice and help to all students, and generally running the show.

But that was then. This concept of college as a one-size-fits-all, place-bound experience centered on the course describes the higher education of only a minority of students today. With broad availability of personal computing devices and nearly ubiquitous access to high-speed connectivity driving the growth of online learning, the ways that students experience postsecondary education have proliferated – and have become more both more diverse and more granular.

Among the ten key trends for 2015 in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Trends Report is the concept of "unbundling:" that is, picking apart the elements that make up "going to college" and remixing them to create fresh learning experiences that are better adapted for the complex lives of today's students. If you've followed the progress of NGLC's breakthrough models for college completion, you know that each of them represents this kind of remix. This month saw timely examples of this key trend: a case study of the multi-institution degree developed in Texas and an event hosted by College for America, the breakthrough model created at Southern New Hampshire University. 

This month's EDUCAUSE Review Online published a study by Rebecca Klein-Collins and Kathleen Glancey, both of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), which describes the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program, as implemented at South Texas College and Texas A&M-Commerce. The first two years of this program are entirely competency-based. Competency-based education is a remix: what previously comprised a "course" is dissected into specific skills, knowledge components, or abilities, with a focus on what someone with those skills or abilities should be able to do. Students work not at "learning material" but rather at being able to demonstrate their specific skills in relation to the concepts that are to be mastered. The CAEL study delves into the ways in which a program like this benefits students, who are enabled to focus their attention and work on areas that they have yet to master rather than going back over concepts that they are already familiar with. A 2014 NGLC publication focusing on the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate, "Faculty Engagement," explores how academic contributors at the two institutions collaborated on the remix, defining the competencies and determining how they would be assessed.

Unbundling and remixing the elements that make up "college" extends beyond program design. It also can characterize the way in which institutions structure the work of dedicated academic professionals responsible for guiding student learning and ensuring their success. Earlier this month, representatives of the breakthrough models, along with participants from the Breakthrough Models Academy and the 2014 Breakthrough Models Incubator, took advantage of the chance to see firsthand at what it means to separate the parts of the complicated set of responsibilities generally referred to as "the faculty role" during a visit to Southern New Hampshire University's College for America (CFA), as discussed in a recent blog post.

At College for America, students work not with a single faculty member but with a cohort of professionals, as chief academic officer Kate Kazin explains in this post on the CFA website: "…specially trained and selected experts are dedicated to each function: Learning Coaches advise students; SNHU faculty, CfA consultants, and staff reviewers inform overall curriculum design and development; CfA curriculum and assessment developers create the learning packages and assessments; and trained reviewers evaluate student work." Rather than relying on just one person with responsibility for every aspect of the learning experience, the student receives services and support from an entire team.