Will higher education go the way of music albums and cable TV? Is it inevitable that the Internet will break apart degrees and colleges?
Some entrepreneurs think so. Fortunately, they are wrong.
It’s true that both cable TV and record albums have been "unbundled." By providing smaller units (individual songs and shows) on the Internet, they’ve offered customers lower prices, more content, and more options. With those examples as their guide, some entrepreneurs see higher education going the same way—being unbundled on the Internet—producing more choice and lower costs.
One of these entrepreneurs is Martin Smith, who wrote an essay last July for Quartz titled "What universities have in common with record labels." In the essay he made the case for a future in which education institutions separate their classroom-level courses from their related degrees the way individual songs have been broken away from albums. That could mean, for example, that someone could take an accounting course from a Columbia University professor and a marketing course offered at the University of Florida and build his or her own business degree, one class at a time, from the best professors.
The unbundling of albums in favor of individual songs was one of the biggest causes of the music industry’s decline. It cannibalized the revenue of record labels as 99-cent songs gained popularity over $20 albums. It also changed the way music labels had to operate in order to maintain profitability.
This last decade of the music industry presages the coming decade of education. Choice is expanding at every level, from pre-k to graduate school. The individual course, rather than the degree, is becoming the unit of content. And universities, the record labels of education, are facing increased pressure to unbundle their services.
At first, it may appear that Smith has a point. Higher education is dominated by institutions that have not kept up with technology. And like cable TV and record companies, higher-education bundlers (colleges and universities) don’t produce the content they sell—they package it for sale and provide support services such as marketing and quality control.