Higher education’s resistance to change is proverbial, but the reputation is not entirely deserved.
Experiments in instructional methodology are at least as old as the university itself. Higher education presents the paradox of an industry at once deeply averse to structural innovation and yet addicted to self-reform.
This paradox has been thrown into sharp relief as never before.
The pace of change has quickened. Even those who declare they’ve “seen it all before” in terms of education reform may be finding the latest experiments increasingly difficult to dismiss. There’s a new urgency in these initiatives as states reduce funding and the foundations of the land-grant movement are shaken as never before. Pressures mount on colleges and universities to reduce skyrocketing costs. A skeptical (and heavily indebted) public demands proof of the value and workplace relevance of a degree. The profile of an “average student” has shifted, and institutions scramble meet the needs of a new demographic majority, the so-called non-traditional student.
We’re entering a period of sustained experimentation that won’t slow down anytime soon.
The present scenario represents a tipping point that could profoundly change how students learn, how institutions confer credentials and — most disturbingly for some — how we distribute the various tasks bundled within that venerable amalgam of roles known as “faculty instruction.”
Re-Engineering the Faculty Role
Unbundling usually refers to a team-based approach to the various aspects of instruction, in which the individual faculty member no longer exercises sole control over the wide host of tasks belonging to faculty, including:
- Developing course curricula
- Curating and choosing course materials
- Delivering lectures
- Interacting with students
- Designing assignments and assessments
- Evaluating student performance
- Tracking student success
- Mentoring students with developmental challenges
- Providing academic advising and degree planning
- And much, much more
As the list suggests, some of these roles have been “unbundled” for so long, they won’t strike most readers as innovations at all.
Indeed, neither the concept nor the practice of unbundling are new. As early as the 1970s, observers were speaking of “unbundling” as a way to improve student learning, increase institutional efficiencies and address the conflicting pressures of faculty life. One of the forerunners of adaptive learning and competency-based education — so-called mastery learning — put the instructor in the role of mentor and guide rather than “sage on the stage”.
Such ideas were slow to take hold until what might be called the first generation of online education in the 1990s and early 2000s. Pioneered by a small group of institutions focused on serving adult students, the move to online programs at scale necessarily required a team-based approach to developing and delivering content, with faculty serving as subject-matter experts in collaboration with instructional designers, librarians, programmers and other professional partners.
Listening to Faculty
Until now, institution-wide changes in the faculty role have been the exception, the provenance of that seemingly marginal group of not-for-profit and for-profit institutions serving adult students. But the margin has become the center, and the reality is that any large-scale migration to online education, adoption of open educational resources (OERs), competency-based education or many of the other changes being explored almost necessitates further unbundling of the traditional faculty role.
By the same token, enterprise-wide reforms will not succeed unless faculty are included in the conversation. Institutions must be able to clearly explain why they’re unbundling, and what those new “bundles” will look like. While every serious party admits cost reduction must be part of the equation, as Patricia Neely and Jan Tucker have argued, simply unbundling the faculty role doesn’t necessarily lead to cost savings; the move to online education contains many hidden costs.
Institutions need to offer an inspiring vision of how teaching and learning can be more rewarding within new “bundles.” For some faculty, this may mean developing or curating high-quality content (through OERs, for example). Others will be motivated by a passion for mentoring individual students. Still others by the challenges of orchestrating large-scale discussions over social media, exchanges no longer confined within the silo of a single course. These are just a few of the new roles that will emerge.
The coming specialization of faculty roles means institutions and programs responsible for producing the next generation of instructional faculty are ethically bound to provide their graduates with a realistic professional skill set beyond knowledge of their discipline. Newly-minted PhDs, whose positions will focus on teaching rather than research, will need to understand and demonstrate competence in the various emerging specializations.
These changes are unsettling. Yet the status quo is hardly ideal. The life of full- or part-time adjunct faculty at many institutions has become less rewarding, more exhausting and, for some individuals who labor under heavy teaching loads, unsustainable.
What we need is a new covenant of university life; one focused on student learning, improving outcomes and demonstrating value, in which faculty have the time to specialize in what they do best and what they find most rewarding.
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 Matthew Prineas and Marie Cini, “Assessing Learning in Online Education: The Role of Technology in Improving Student Outcomes,” National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, October 2011. Accessed at http://www.learningoutcomeassessment.org/documents/OnlineEd.pdf, page 8.
 Patricia Neely and Jan Tucker, “Unbundling Faculty Roles in Online Distance Education Programs,” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(2), May 2010. Accessed at http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/798/1543
 Shari Smith, “Reimagining the Faculty Role,” OLC eLearning Landscape, November 5, 2013. Accessed at http://blog.sloanconsortium.org/2013/11/05/reimagining-the-faculty-role/
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