With the explosion of online learning, a disruptive innovation, there has been significant attention paid to the likely unbundling of higher education (see Michael Staton’s AEI piece and this University Ventures Fund piece, for example).

We’ve written about unbundling ourselves. In every industry, the early successful products and services often have an interdependent architecture—meaning that they tend to be proprietary and bundled. The reason for this is that when a technology is immature, in order to make the products reliable or powerful enough so that they will gain traction, an entity has to wrap its hands around the whole system architecture so that it can wring out every ounce of performance.

As a technology matures, however, it eventually overshoots the raw performance that many customers need. As a result, new disruptive innovations emerge that are more modular—or unbundled—as customers become less willing to pay for things like power and increased reliability but instead prioritize the ability to customize affordably by mixing and matching different pieces that fit together according to precise standards.

As one-off courses in education and programs like General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp emerge, we are seeing the beginning of unbundling in courses, content, credentialing, campus life and personal growth, and more.

There is a flip side to unbundling, however, that receives far less attention. As a service’s architecture becomes modular, its performance becomes determined by the raw performance of its subcomponents, which consequently become interdependent—or re-bundled—as the entities making these subcomponents need to wring every ounce of performance out of them. In other words, as one stage becomes modular, an adjacent stage becomes interdependent.

In education, my sense is that as things like content become unbundled, there will exist a need for subcomponents that bundle things together like coaching, mentoring, communities, personal learning plans, and employer connections, as these areas are critical for student success, but the ways in which they fit together are not yet well enough understood such that there can be clear standards at their various interfaces. Standalone, modular solutions in these areas will struggle to succeed. Creating standards at their interfaces before we know what the standards should be will similarly suffer.

Fidelis Education (full disclosure: I serve on the company’s board), which offers a SaaS platform for education and training organizations, represents one potential example of this sort of integration at the subcomponent level. Today Fidelis offers a Learning Relationship Management (LRM) product that integrates coaching, mentoring, learning communities, personal learning plans, badges, employer connections, alumni engagement, and all of these elements’ connections to lessons and teaching. By integrating them in one platform, the goal is to make the overall more modular solution elegant enough to enable success for students at scale today.

Similarly, too few are thinking about how to help students make sense of and navigate this emerging, unbundled world and integrate the modular pieces together in ways that help them carve out a coherent and sensible life path. This is critical because it appears that in a personalized learning future, every single learner will have a custom fit educational pathway.

Just as Dell emerged in the modular age of personal computing to integrate disparate pieces into a coherent whole, the upstart band of online competency-based educational providers—folks like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire’s College for America, and UniversityNow’s Patten University—could emerge to fill this gap.

Whether these are the right integrations, I don’t know, but it’s clear that for us to transform higher education into a more affordable experience that can personalize for different student needs and bring about greater lifelong success, just thinking about how higher education will unbundle won’t be enough.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.