Bundles of training or unbundles of learning

Having started, I think this theme will require more than one post. This should be read as an introduction to the theme. Or maybe a ramble through its foothills.

A little self diagnosis to start. When an idea finds me, or a way of explaining things, I tend to see it everywhere. I am not a practising scientist and there is a real risk that I am suffering from confirmation bias. (If so, I am not alone, I believe). Having shared that reservation, I will do what the all aspiring theorists do and proceed regardless. The theory upon which I currently travel is that of unbundling and the opportunities and value that it seems to present for so many traditional activities and areas of commerce.

What I mean by unbundling, or I think I mean, is the breaking of what seemed to be inextricable bonds and connections in a product or service, allowing a consumer or user to only use the element they wish to. So, rather than buying a whole package of stuff, we are able to only buy or use the parts we want.

An oft quoted example of this is the music industry which rose and rose on the bundle of music tracks called the album, consisting of a series of individual songs which could only be purchased with the each other in a bundle (remember that kids?). That bundle of songs was decided on by the music companies, funded by music labels, produced through advance payments (in the main) and marketed by the companies too. A complex and expensive distribution chain, inextricably linked to the format of consumption (the record or tape) kept a check on the supply of recorded music. Music companies decided what was good, what was to be supported and what was to be produced (that explains the 1980s). The artist took most of the risk. Along comes the internet and the famous Napster moment and the bundle bubble is burst. Immediately, access to only the song we wanted was granted. The album was dealt a extinction level blow.

Technology helps of course: broadband, the MP3 format,  smartphones and WiFi all hastened and shaped the intervening years. Reliable streaming, for example, has made subscription to music services viable and the idea of buying music unit by unit feels old fashioned quite quickly. The music industry is now reorganising (or panicking afresh) around access to recorded music rather than ownership of bundles of it. There are some pretty substantial economic consequences unfolding too. Users of YouTube will recognise the revelation of being able to listen to almost anything you can think of for free. (Except for Prince, who really did take control of his catalogue with the zeal of someone who has seen his neighbours inviting burglars for a sleepover).

Many fields of economic activity are reeling form the impact, or threat, of unbundling. The clearest examples though are what are now known as content businesses; broadcasters are struggling with the irrelevance of TV channels, publishers are struggling with new formats (encyclopaedia anyone?), newspapers struggle with a readership interested in stories not the branded bundles they are wrapped in and, of course, higher education is starting to belatedly awake to the world around it.

This is my theme (at last I hear you cry, if indeed you have read this far). I have been spending professional time in and around the world of higher education in the last month or so. From my previous distance I could not detect the winds of change starting to blow so easily. Different international territories are feeling the draught in different places but there are themes whistling around everywhere. At the centre of all of this is the economic value of a degree and its use a predictor of employment opportunity and effectiveness.

Students are asking “will this degree get me the job or the work I want/need?”. Employers are asking “does this degree offer me a clear signal of value of this candidate as an employee (or supplier of work of some sort)?”. (Students are also, increasingly, asking whether they might be better off going straight to the employment market and perhaps, studying at another point or in another way – £9,000 a year is taking its toll).  Part of the answer to these questions is that the whole degree as a bundle may not be as helpful as once thought but parts of it might be. The higher education experience as a whole three or so year on-campus bundle may not work that well any more. The world it was designed to serve is changing around it fundamentally. There is some great stuff in that bundle but maybe not all in one package. Maybe not all in one go. Maybe not even from one supplying institution. “Pick and mix” degree anyone?

Ryan Craig explains this very well in this article and for those who really like this stuff, in this presentation. The idea of a competence model for education is powerful and really will disrupt the market. Employment-ready graduates are what everyone is after, not least graduates themselves and the current system and its bundles is becoming expensively unhelpful in reaching that destination. As a parent of children with higher education on the horizon, I would like to see some more of this kind of thinking come to life.

MOOC providers are one signal of this kind of disruption, offering access to university faculty and teaching directly and often for free. Perhaps not quite a Napster moment but things are afoot. Interestingly, many MOOC platforms are being used for corporate learning purposes. This strikes me as interesting amongst the trends of the L&D world. MOOCs are pretty clearly formal in their endeavours, constructed as linear and with reasonable clear outcomes given and always instructor lead.  One reading of current L&D tea leaves is that formal is less desired and we should be liberated by social tools, curation and our won content. Not very MOOCy, maybe?

What these platforms can do though is solve a design and platform problem for corporates. The best are well designed services with learner needs at heart. They offer direct access to some of the brightest minds and a cohort of like minded students who have also opted in to the course. They can offer social learning in various fashions and in some cases CPD and academic credit. On face value (and further) that beats many corporate eLearning providers on each score.

Hmm. Might these platforms be a good solution to the need for bundles in corporate learning worlds? There is something in there, I think. Nothing in the technology needs a  MOOC to be open, massive or academic. They could be quite specific and modest in scale –  a bundle of the right size maybe?

Alternatively, openness itself could be interesting for corporates to consider. As the work-life line is blurred, learning a professional subject, Big Data perhaps, alongside an international cohort of like minded learners could be very valuable. The ability to share and learn with students from other businesses, geographies and cultures will offer insights into the topic that an internal training course will not support.

More on Training (with the upper case T) as a bundle that can be helpfully undone in a future post.



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