The modular university


The New York Times is reporting that this Wednesday, State Senator Darrell Steinberg will introduce legislation requiring public universities in California to award credit for courses taken online from other institutions. If enacted, a committee would determine the 50 most oversubscribed courses in the California public university system, and would then approve which online versions (from a variety of other institutions and media) are acceptable, credit-worthy substitutes. Students would be allowed to use the online option if a needed course at their school was full, and was not offered online by their college.

While the mechanics are messy, and perhaps a bit overly bureaucratic, it’s yet another sign of the higher education shake-up. The Times reports that “if it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university.”

MOOC courses via Coursera and Udacity, as well as low-cost courses through Straighterline, would likely qualify, the Times reports.

It is yet another interesting development in the quickly changing higher education landscape. Such efforts are also steps toward what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen refers to as modular architecture. Last year, Christensen delivered testimony before the Utah Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and used the example of the computing industry to predict the future of higher education:

“The people who made the money were the people who made the [computing] system. Those who made the components lived a miserable, profit-free existence year after year, because the performance was determined at the level of the system, not the components. But when it went through that transition, where the money made flips, rather than the system manufacturer making the money, it was the companies that made the components [e.g., Intel] that made the money. So I suspect that what will happen in higher education is that the architecture of the curriculum will become modularized. And when it’s modular, you can mix and match and plug and play what you offer to meet the needs of individual sub-segments within the population.”

Such a mix-and-match degree has the potential to improve access, decrease costs, and better equip students with the skills that employers actually value. It also lays the groundwork for a credentialing of content knowledge, instead of continuing to use the rigid bachelor’s degree as a proxy for employability. But, as Stuart Butler noted on this site recently, “business leaders need to step forward and help education reformers end the distorting and constricting effects of traditional accreditation – a dismal measure of skills acquisition and course quality – and encourage instead the spread of degrees built on externally credentialed courses that identify measurable competence.” They also need “to work more closely with institutions of higher education and with the new breed of online and blended learning colleges to help fashion courses of study that are more connected with the future US economy.” What could that mean for the future of higher education? Let’s return to Christensen, who argues that to remain viable, existing institutions need to become hybrid institutions:

“Very quickly we could be offering a package of courses whose components are offered by different organizations. . . . I bet . . . as it becomes more modular, accreditation happens at the level of the course, not the university. And so they can then offer degrees with a collection of actually the best courses taught in the world . . . and little by little, the architecture of our institutions will be comprised of courses that are accredited, and in reality, are the best courses in their field in America. And you can just add these together piece by piece to make a degree.”

Take in Christensen’s words, and look around at the many changes that are in fact underway. In the same article about California’s proposed legislation to require public universities to award credit for online courses, the Times reports that a new company called Lumen Learning, founded by David Wiley, will work with colleges to create degrees derived entirely from open-source materials. The California model might not be perfect, but it is etching perfectly clear writing on the wall: Traditional U, your days are numbered.

Posted by: Lindsey Burke

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