As many of us scramble to figure out how to prepare for the fall, I encourage you to take 8-minutes (the length of this read) to lift your gaze long enough to see the massive SYSTEM disruption occurring in education. This blog is my attempt to define the deeper and often unexplored, problems in education. In today’s read, I will explore “unbundling,” which explains how COVID has radically accelerated the shift of educational “buying habits” and schools will either radically adjust or fade. (See the image below.)
Unbundling Example: Cable and Streaming Services
Most of us remember the ancient past (15 years ago) when all the television channels you wanted (and many more you didn’t) could be found in a single cable company. We would happily pay inflated fees for dozens of channels that were “bundled” into one package. Over the past few years, however, streaming services have been “unbundling” shows and allowing customers to choose specific shows or categories of shows they most want. Here’s what I mean:
- Netflix ($8.99 per month)
- HBO GO, HBO NOW ($14.99 per month)
- Disney Plus ($6.99 per month)
- Hulu ($5.99 per month)
- Amazon Prime Video ($119 per year)
- Sling TV ($30 per month)
- Fubo TV ($54.99 per month)
- Crackle (free)
If you love ESPN, go with Disney Plus. If “Cursed” is your preferred binge, you’ll have to get Netflix.
COVID is now pressuring higher education (and K-12) to unbundle in the same way.
Unbundling of Higher Ed
The traditional higher education “bundle” includes all of the tangible and intangible reasons one might pay grossly inflated fees to attend university. These include:
- social gatherings,
- student groups,
- dorm life,
- college athletics,
- improved job prospects,
These are sometimes described as “the university experience,” and many parents and students willingly go into debt to obtain this bundled package of products and services.
Because of COVID, the university experience is fracturing, and families are asking new questions about its actual value, given the many new alternatives offering specific, tangible, unbundled educational offerings at a fraction of the time and cost. Education is one of the only industries that has not been disrupted by technology, but that time may have arrived.
Higher Education’s bloated cost structure forces them to charge families the same tuition for a diminished, online-only experience. Not surprisingly, families are resisting.
This year, many college students (estimates range from 20-40%) will opt to defer and experiment with developing specific, high-demand skills elsewhere. Others may return home, study remotely, and with a freer schedule (not to mention thousands of dollars saved from college room and board costs), mayby start a business. As an example, a friend’s son, who just finished his sophomore year at Georgetown, is deferring next year. In the meantime, he has started a small business and will likely explore new learning opportunities this year. Google’s new Career Certificates for data analyst, project manager, or user experience designer is one such example. Google has recently stated,
Please re-read the above quote again and consider the implications when one of the most iconic companies in the world is stating publicly: “to work here, skills are more important than a degree.”
Google is not alone. Businesses across the country are aware of the “skills gap” (the gap between the skills workers possess, and the skills businesses say they need) among graduates. In a recent survey of 500 human resources leaders, 74% said their companies require specific skills in their applicants, but only 26% said that the student’s academic credential (degree) is used in assessing the candidate. Skills are now more valuable than a degree. Not surprisingly, dozens of nonprofit and for-profit educational alternatives now provide unbundled offerings in every conceivable sector, most focusing on specific skills.
Unbundling in Private K-12
Private K-12 schools are facing a much worse threat than higher ed.
When colleges go virtual, the criminally high tuition doesn’t add MORE work to the student. She just misses out on the rest of the bundled university experience.
In private K-12, however, schools are attempting to charge parents the same bloated tuition while expecting the parent to do the vast majority of the daily work. In effect, parents will pay for a bundled product, receive an unbundled virtual curriculum, AND assume responsibility for instructing and supporting their child daily.
This train robbery only works if you can find people willing to pay. Unfortunately for private schools, the parents I have spoken to are skeptical, to say the least. Many private school parents have been the first to begin exploring unbundled options.
Of course, this fact is not lost on private schools. Now you understand a genuine but unspoken reason private schools are so eager to reopen. They see COVID as an existential threat. COVID promotes the unbundling of all K-12, especially in private schools.
As private school parents realize that, for a fraction of the money, they can educate their child using a variety of personalized learning tools, can maintain socialization through learning pods, can pursue unbundled subjects for which their children have natural interest (ex: digital design, or coding), and can do all of this from their home/community, many will not return when COVID is behind us.
Unbundling of Public School
The unanswered question for public schools is not IF families will explore unbundling. Many already are. The questions are related to WHO will begin unbundling in earnest, and to WHAT DEGREE this will impact the school districts.
Many of the same pressures buffeting private schools and universities are driving public school unbundling. However, for any parent to consider unbundling their child’s education, they must have at least one of the following three “Essential Assets”:
- Strong and Stable Social Network
In public schools, sadly, a great many parents lack any of the above Assets. For those students, their academic future remains bleak and academic freefall is painfully common. Although, let’s be honest, academic freefall has long been a shamefully large truth in American education.
But more families than we might think have some time or enough social supports to consider options. Remember, unbundling is not an either/or proposition. It is more of a continuum that runs between small-scale home enrichment all the way to full-blown homeschool. For families who are exploring this continuum, their unbundling efforts are usually focused on reading and math.
In talking to K-12 parents, all seem driven towards unbundling by a combination of fears and one unexpected ambition.
Unbundling Driver #1: Parental Fears
Parents fear their child’s academic decline and their families’ health risks if their child returns to school. But, especially in public schools, they also fear the educational system itself.
The recent pressure to open schools led by federal and state leadership has reminded some, and brought a new awareness to others, that the educational system may be more focused on adult needs than student success. This public pressure has aggravated existing parental cynicism and distrust in the educational leaders’ intentions, and this lack of trust is also driving unbundling behavior. Parents feel that they must look out for their kids — ostensibly because the system can’t or won’t do so.
Unbundling Driver #2: Parental Hope for an Engaged Student
When I surveyed the parents with whom I have worked, the number one thing they desire is for help re-engaging their children in learning. As one mom said best,
Many parents are awakening to an uncomfortable truth about their students: That they are uninspired, disengaged, and bored with school. Perhaps this is, in part, why so many students are spending enormous amounts of time on video games, social media, and YouTube. As the author, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
This sounds like a lot of kids. Rightly, parents see their disengaged child as a serious concern and their unbundling efforts are seeking to re-engage their children in the simple joy of learning. COVID has forced parents to confront this fundamental problem in our educational system.
We are witnessing the unbundling of education in real time. Although the motivations differ between university, private K-12, and public K-12 families, unbundling behavior is evidence of parents and students looking for something better. If and when they find it, traditional educational structures will be threatened. Unbundling is a trend that is here to stay and I expect it to only increase over time. And, depending on how the first weeks of school go, the trend may accelerate sooner than we think.
I see unbundling primarily as a way to help re-engage kids in learning. Unbundling allows the potential for a level of individualization and personalization that, although possible, seems always to be a low priority in our test-heavy, top-down, one-size-fits-few educational system. Truthfully, the system just wasn’t built for individualization. That’s why parents are seeking alternatives.
Twelve years ago, we unbundled our kids’ education and have seen what re-engagement and TRUE learning looks like. It has not been easy, but watching our kids shift from a desire for entertainment towards a desire — and genuine ability — to lead, grow, and learn… well, it’s difficult to describe with words. The only word that captures what I feel is “PEACE.” I am at total peace with my kid’s future. I’m not sure if this makes sense but it is my sincere hope that, one day, you can look at your kids and feel a similar sense of peace. This is my mission.