Sunday, August 26, 2018

Higher education - would you like that bundled or unbundled?

CC0 Public domain by congerdesign on Pixnio
Unbundling of higher education means that instead of studying at one university and following a degree programme from start to finish you can instead take courses from a wide range of institutions, earning credits, certificates (for example from MOOCs) and microcredentials (open badges etc) as you go and then presenting your portfolio to an institution that can assess your learning and award you credits or even a degree. The concept of the do-it-yourself university has been around for many years now and unbundling is presented as a liberating force in education putting the learners "in the driving seat" and allowing greater freedom and flexibility.

However, that slippery word freedom is very subjective and the people who benefit most from this new model are those who already understand the educational system and have the digital and study skills to take advantage of it. The vast majority are unaware of these opportunities and lack the necessary skills to get on board. Even if you do, there are still no guarantees that a future employer or university will recognise the new credentials you have gathered. There is plenty of excellent work on the recognition of open education and microcredentials, for example, the ongoing European projects ReOPEN and Open Education Passport (OEPASS). The new credentials must be accepted and integrated into national and international frameworks and these projects as well as other similar initiatives are looking at practical models for this.

But even if you can assemble your own personalised degree programme from the vast range of courses available today, is it really the equivalent of three or four years of concentrated study at one institution where the courses are designed to complement each other and you are immersed in an academic environment with seminars, tutorials and discussion to support your learning? This is questioned in an article in Times Higher Education, Microcredentials 'undermine' learning.
Leesa Wheelahan of the University of Toronto questions whether a collection of certificates from a wide range of short training courses can really match a full coordinated degree.

“A lot of the rhetoric about micro-credentials and digital badges is that people should be able to build degrees by aggregating all these bits. ... This is a fragmented vision in which the total is the sum of parts ... It undermines the role of degrees [in] preparing individuals for work and life by engaging with a deep and sustained body of work, knowledge and skills.”

A do-it-yourself degree could mean missing essential elements of a full degree. Many MOOCs and other online courses focus on content transfer or practical training rather than collaboration, discussion and reflection and although the content may be equivalent to the formal equivalent the end result in terms of learning is not the same.

“If something is to qualify as higher education, it should require individuals to engage in debates and controversies in that field [to] develop perspectives as practitioners. Micro-skills training is just that – training – and this is not why we have invested in universities.”

I see great potential for microcredentials to recognise soft skills, work experience and open learning but I'm not sure that the concept of the do-it-yourself university is a practical solution except for an extremely skilled and educationally mature group. In order to choose wisely among the myriad of online courses most people will need considerable guidance and support The option of a rounded, well-designed degree programme (campus, online or both) from one institution will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

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