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18 December 2013 / erikduval

Commodification? Unbundling?

Yesterday, we had a really nice discussion with a small EC delegation about the future of ‘the university’. (You know who you are: thanks – you gave me food for thought. That’s a precious gift.)

Apparently, some people are rather worried by the risk of ‘commodification‘. I’ve added quotes and a link to the wikipedia article, because I wasn’t really sure what the word means. Apparently, wikipedia is itself an illustration of the commodification of knowledge…

Trying to articulate in terms that I understand better what I think is the real challenge for universities, I used the notion of ‘unbundling‘. A long time ago, universities offered a full package and had almost a monopoly as a provider of that package. Nowadays, many, if not all, of the parts of that package are also offered by alternative providers:

  • professors used to author content: many still do, but there is such an abundance of high quality content (OER and other) that I don’t understand why we would still focus on this as a core aspect;
  • professors used to deliver content, for instance by lecturing: many still do, but the effectiveness of doing this is very questionable, there are many alternatives now and delivery of content is challenged by the ‘flipped classroom’ and other alternative models;
  • universities used to support students in the learning process: well, some did and some still do, but spontaneous or organised communities of learning are moving on-line;
  • professors used to take exams in order to validate that students had learned: well, this is certainly still the norm, but I have argued before that exams were intended as a means and have now become a goal for students which actually impedes learning – and, in any case, automated or peer grading, as well as learning analytics provide rather attractive alternatives that scale much better;
  • universities had the monopoly of accreditation through diplomas: again, this is still largely the case, but also under pressure through the use of badges and alliances between alternative providers of learning and corporations.

All in all, through this process of unbundling, the authority of the university as a learning institution is challenged at a deep level. Being the optimist that I am, I think this is A Good Thing: either the universities can make clear what value they add by bundling these different services or they will become less and less relevant, as specialised providers of only one or other service will be more effective.

Personally, I am not completely sure what exactly the added value of the university is. A ‘place for learning’ sounds nice, but you could also be a place for learning and do so by integrating services from elsewhere? If you would invent the university now, would it look anything like universities as we know them?

What do you think? Did I miss important services that the are also part of the university ‘bundle’? Do you have ideas about the added value of the university?



Leave a Comment
  1. bramluyten / Dec 18 2013 1:21 am

    Elaborating on the part of accreditation: The universities offer a “brand” as well, allowing people to become associated with the brand once they get the degree.

    Malcolm Gladwell’s recent “David and Goliath” had an interesting part on how you may be better off being a big fish in a small pond, when it comes to the “prestige” of your institution.

    • erikduval / Dec 18 2013 4:43 pm

      Interesting take on accreditation, Bram… But it may be a matter of ambition: if you go for a small pond, you obviously will never be the big fish in the big pond? If you really want to compete in sports, you do want to win gold at the olympics, not at the local village games? That said, you may just want to run fast, or jump high and not care about competition at all…

  2. Tim Smits (@TimSmitsTim) / Dec 18 2013 1:37 am

    Hi Erik,
    Maybe the term commoditization rather commodification could enlighten here (though there is little difference between the two, I guess). In a market situation, commoditization is characterised by a.o. the following things (see Reimann et al
    -increasing homogeneity of choice alternatives
    -rising price-sensitivity of customers
    -lower switching costs of customers
    -higher industry stability

    Replace industry by university, alternative by educational program and customer by student. That is our situation. At the same time it explains what can be done from the university side:
    -increase diversity of alternatives: do something different than other universities (or other higher edu alternatives)
    -lower your prices for your homogenous offers, which is impossible in Belgium given our current low prices
    -increase switching costs between choice alternatives, which runs counter to our idea of flexibility
    -destabilize the market with innovative approaches

    At the same time, advertising practice does inform us that in a commoditized environment, marketing is often focused on soft content such as image and affect. This would imply we think in terms of emotional selling propostions to market our university (e.g., we are the most “caring”). On the other hand, in a dynamic market, there is a stronger focus on cognitive content such as a unique selling proposition (e.g., we are the “best”).

    Just a few thoughts…


    • erikduval / Dec 18 2013 4:49 pm

      Thx, Tim: is probably helpful to think about this through a marketing lens too… I think that KU Leuven could use its competitive marketing advantage as a close-too-600-year-old respectable part of the European higher education establishment much more strongly. Not that I know much about marketing, but that would seem relatively easy to do? No doubt, there is some of that in networks like LERU (

      But personally, I’d be more interested to ‘destabilize the market with innovative approaches’, though I guess that it is rarely the market leaders who take that route? Though some do?

  3. Debbie Morrison / Dec 18 2013 7:40 am

    ‘Commodification‘ can affect quality of education for undergraduate students in particular — the focus becomes ‘how can we make money’, rather than ‘how best can we help students learn’? Udacity is a good example — the pilot project Udacity conducted with San Jose State University last spring failed miserably. Three classes were offered on the Udacity platform to San Jose students, with curriculum developed by San Jose faculty — yet the failure rate was over 60% :(. Udacity now has moved on to corporate education…

    I recently wrote an article about alternative models of higher education — and explored four higher ed institutions. But change is hard to do…

    • erikduval / Dec 18 2013 4:56 pm

      Thx, Debbie. Appreciate the pointer and am certainly intrigued by an approach based on ‘there are no grades; students receive check marks to indicate if they are engaged in learning’…

      I seem to have an overall much more favourable impression than many of you about Udacity 😉 It is true that they ignore much of what many of us have been doing for decades. But they are clearly trying, learning from their failures and iterating to get it right – or at least to make it better. I respect that. I think we don’t do enough of that in our traditional universities.

      Maybe commodification can lead to more focus on making money. But, for me, this is more about removing friction, making it easier for students to choose from a variety of alternatives, destroying some of the authority and lock-in. As I wrote in the original post though, I’m a bit of an optimist 😉

      • Debbie Morrison / Dec 18 2013 7:07 pm

        Erik — I agree that Udacity cannot be found at fault for trying – experimentation is necessary — though I am sensitive to using students as subjects for experiments as was the case with the pilot project with SJSU. In this instance students with needs for remediation in math were part of the pilot courses, and most of them failed :(. This could have been avoided had there been a more thoughtful and careful planning of the pilot. However in the big picture I agree with you that there is much to be learned from from Udacity and other such companies. The positive outcome of these companies is the discussion that has been generated among educators.

        As you mentioned the unbundling is an opportunity for higher ed to reform and streamline to meet the needs of current students. The key to successful unbundling appears to be the need for a strategic plan that guides the process, otherwise it becomes a mish mash of uncoordinated efforts to streamline the process. What I like about the schools I mentioned in the post I shared is that each has a vision, a clear mission for the institution.

        Thanks for the discussion!

  4. Hedia / Dec 18 2013 10:15 am

    I think that Unbundling is certainly the “best” word to describe the situation.

  5. Jorge Maldonado / Dec 30 2013 10:40 am

    Hi Erik,

    The first question to be answered is why we go to a university? to acquire new knowledge that in the future we will improve the “quality of life ” . And what happens when we graduate and we could not get a job that allows us to obtain the standard of living you expect ?

    I think universities should now offer a ” motivational ” or “emotional ” component tied to the needs of context that allow to solve real life problems through acquired knowledge. Then the value of the University would go beyond just providing the content but also experiences.

    However, I think one of the real values ​​of this University may have in their teachers and what they can bring to learning. For me, learning how to assess the course of 4 or 5 years of study would be through real projects that impact in the life of people. This should be the goal of universities and not just be content carriers.



  1. Commodification? Unbundling? | KU Leuven blogt
  2. The Commodification of Learning | SoshiTech

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