How to Do Effective Christian Higher Education in an Unbundled World?

Disruptive innovation theory states that while vertically integrated solutions are likely to prove superior in the short-term, unbundled horizontally integrated solutions often dominate in the long-term. Michael Horn discusses the implications of unbundling and rebundling in his Forbes article as I do in my presentation on unbundling and rebundling in my course.  The basic idea is shown in the diagram below.
Here is the question. One of the main strengths of Christian higher education is its integrated nature. Unbundling and rebundling requires modularity which limits some of the ability to integrate all components. How have you used unbundled components in Christian higher education? How much does this modularity limit your ability to do effective Christian education?  What are the major problems that you see?  What are the advantages?  How can we do effective Christian higher education in an unbundled world?

I will start with my response. Please feel free to add yours, and I will include it in the group blog post.  While anyone is free to answer this question, I’m particularly interested in hearing answers from for those of you who have used unbundled components in your programs (like courseware, student coaches, outsourced components, etc.).

We have used various forms of courseware extensively in our courses: McGraw Hill’s Learnsmart, Saylor Academy’s open course, Christian curriculum from TUMI, MOOCs, etc. On one level, using unbundled components is not controversial as nearly all Christian universities will use secular books and YouTube videos in some of their courses.

The biggest challenge is that as a program architect, I have to think very intentionally for each element of a degree program on which category of faith-integration it might have. These range from:
  • Group A: Courses not requiring faith integration like math and accounting. These are easiest to use secular third party materials like MOOCs and courseware.  We have determined that for these courses, the cost of losing modularity by of creating surface level faith-integration (prayer or devotional at beginning of each week) is not worth the benefit.  We have no problem essentially outsourcing these modules. We are also actively using GC4 to create paths for transfer credit for these unbundled components whether MOOCs or Microdegrees. I believe that while there is some loss in not always integrating faith in Group A courses, there is a dramatic cost benefit.
  • Group B: Courses requiring significant faith integration like social entrepreneurship. For these courses, we design the overall course, but will include large modules such as books and MOOCs.
  • Group C: Courses requiring intensive faith-integration like Theology of Work. For these courses, we typically design the vast majority of the course ourselves and are very intentional about how these courses support our degree paths.
The biggest loss I see is not in the modularity of courses, but in the limitations on the transformational experience that can happen in an online environment. We see transformation happen in our online courses, but they are not as effective as a local community.  Because of this, we have been investing heavily in how to effectively partner with church and ministry microcampuses.  I believe that the most effective local churches are better at life transformation than most Christian higher education institutions.  Our vision is that if we can link up with the transformational churches as microcampuses, then the rebundled online CHE with church microcampus could be as effective or more effective than campus-based CHE.
The biggest challenge is in getting tight linkages between unbundled components as follows:
  • Transformative Experience. Churches and ministries might transform, but they are not transform in a way that is very well integrated with courses.  This can be addressed with effective partnerships, training and end-to-end system design.
  • Metacognition and Skills. Coaches, mentors and internships might help with metacognition and skills, but they also have very limited integration with what the student is learning in their courses. This can be addressed with effective partnerships, training and end-to-end system design.
  • Access to opportunities. Often, courses may not be aligned with industry certifications or employer requirements. This can be addressed with effective partnerships, training and end-to-end system design. Similarly, the degree is a very non-transparent limiting way to represent a student’s capabilities. This can be address by intentionally designing a program so that students develop their public digital protfolio and LinkedIn profile as a part of their degree requirements.
  • Knowledge acquisition. If courses come from disparate sources and values, there needs to be much more intentional design that the “lego pieces” fit together into a coherent whole.
In the end, many of these problems of having loose linkages between components are problems for traditional universities, but they are ever more of an issue with unbundled/rebundled programs.  I would argue that in the long-run a well designed unbundled/rebundled program could have much tighter linkages between modular components, and result in a much stronger Christian education than a traditional CHE program.
In the future I think there will be three tiers of degrees:
  • Gold Tier (Apple’s iPhone). These will be largely vertically integrated.  These programs will have designs are tightly integrated and have more constraints and higher quality standards at all levels including entrance requirements.
  • Silver Tier (Apple’s Android). This still requires an integrated design, but will provide more flexibility and quality standards that might adapt to different contexts and markets.  Ultimately this is the tier that City Vision is trying to play at.
  • Bronze Tier (unbundled moocs). The bronze would essentially be largely unbundled components, that have been reassembled with very loosely connected components. GC4 is working to play at this tier

Often in architectures, tight integration produces better quality in the short term (5-10 years), while more modular system usually match or exceed the quality of the integrated m
odel in the long term (10+) years.  For example, many recent reviews I’ve seen of the more tightly integrated Android Phones (like Google Pixil) are showing it matching or exceeding iPhone, but still most android phones are not at that level of quality.  Android now has 86.2% global market share vs. 12.9 for iPhone.

disruptiveI expect that education will play out in a similar way for higher education.  A pattern seen in hundreds of industries is shown in the adjacent diagram. A veritcally integrated provider comes out with a superior solution (Mac/iPhone), then later a horizontal solution comes along that gradually gains market share (PCs/Android).  There are obviously complexities to this in that there are particularities in some markets (and stages of market development) that lend themselves toward vertical integration.  That is why the playout of Apple Macs vs. PC/Microsoft has been different between iPhone vs. Android (so far) because the level of usability of consumer electronics lend themselves toward vertically integrated solutions.  Obviously the degree of vertical integration is a spectrum. Apple is considered a vertically integrated company, but it still selects horizontal component manufacturers to source many levels of its product. I think the key is the level of integration vs. modularity.