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COVID-19 Writes a Prescription for Change: Unbundling/Rebundling Learning

Stackable credentialing models provide the flexibility, responsiveness and student-centricity needed to support consistent engagement and employment outcomes, benefiting learners, employers and institutions alike.

The traditional methods of higher education delivery never worked quite well enough for job preparation and reskilling, according to many employers. Then came COVID-19, wreaking havoc on the world of work and effectively deconstructing the college experience. At least for now, the pandemic has decoupled dorms, sports, in-person instruction, socialization, tuition, and other elements of the college experience from the learning itself. This unbundling of education opens up the space to reimagine how the future of learning will reassemble its component parts, especially for adults. Can we rebundle higher education in better ways to ready adults for the future of work?  Can learning systems reassemble to enable continuous and lifelong learning that keeps pace with the unrelenting rate of change? 

In fact, various forms of reassembly are underway right now. New delivery systems have already made the 180-degree turn, moving to widespread online instruction and hybrid approaches. Coming next is major curricular change because the old methods of job preparation and reskilling are increasingly outdated. Unbundling and rebundling learning is a promising prescription for change in the fluid pandemic environment. And while institutions that serve up the traditional in-residence college experience may return to that mode, adult workers and employers can’t depend on it for their future.

The pandemic has changed the world of work now and in the foreseeable future. 

The 2007-09 Great Recession essentially bisected employment trends according to education levels: managerial and professional jobs (those requiring higher education) increased while blue-collar and clerical jobs plummeted.  Economists pointed to two main drivers of change: occupational and industry shifts. The diverging trends were “primarily tied to structural changes in industry sectors, rather than anything specific to this recovery.”   

Just when we had mostly recovered from the most severe economic recession in the U.S. since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the “perfect storm” hit.  We are now in the midst of a global pandemic, facing the biggest recession in decades and confronting the challenge of providing equitable opportunities for all Americans.  Also, unprecedented advances in technology mean that the “future of work” is now  ̶  not ten years from now. 

In this choppy sea of uncertainty, employers are changing workers’ roles to survive and meet the demand of the times. We expect to see more automation and decoupling between workers and work. This shifting landscape of new skills will confound many of the 30-40 million unemployed workers who wish to re-establish themselves in jobs. Even for those still employed, it’s tough to keep up as employers turn to gig workers and reduce their investment in education and training in a bid to cut cost. 

Because of these changes, higher education’s old ways will not serve workers or employers. 

With the current pace of change, education curricula ̶ especially at institutions that claim to prepare students for the workforce ̶ need constant updating. While some education providers have the capacity to update their programs, many do not. This will result in wide variations in quality among higher education programs. 

And even if all providers develop the capacity to update their curricula, they (colleges, universities, third-party providers, and so on) face a massive volume of people to serve.  The time and affordability of education will also keep many workers stuck. On average, tuition at colleges and universities has increased in the past decade by 37%, and net cost (factoring in scholarships and grants) have increased by 24%.  Recent polling from the Strada Education Center for Consumer Insight indicates that adults right now favor the acquisition of skills over degree attainment.  

Unbundling and rebundling is the approach to build an adult-friendly higher education experience.

A key prescription for rebuilding an adult-friendly, future-ready higher education system is to break it into its essential components, then reassemble them to meet the learners’ needs and those of their employers. Some components will fall to the wayside, others will be updated, and new ones added.  

Nowhere will this be more important than one of the hardest-hit industry sectors: health care. 

Within health care, the allied health professions offer a particularly compelling case for unbundling and rebundling. The nation has more than 5 million allied health care workers working in over 80 different professions. In California alone, by 2024, there will be a need for some 500,000 new allied healthcare workers.  Before the pandemic, examples of the fastest-growing allied health professions were pharmacy technician, medical assistant, dental assistant, medical records officer, and health IT professional. The shelter-in-place mandates jarringly shifted the skillsets of workers in those occupations to deliver virtual care and added brand new occupations, such as contact tracers and telehealth coordinators.  

Futuro Health, a nonprofit established with a commitment of $130 million by Kaiser Permanente and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), seeks to increase the number of credentialed allied health care workers. Its approach is essentially “rapid prototyping” the unbundling/rebundling model.  

Take the telehealth skillset, for example. Upon identifying and vetting with multiple employers the shift in skills, Futuro Health scouted for an online, adult-friendly curriculum. It found the Advanced Telehealth Coordinator program at the University of Delaware and offered the certificate tuition-free to 200 people on California’s public health and safety net system frontlines. At the same time, Futuro Health sought out a health IT curriculum and selected Coursera, which could leverage its existing Google IT content but add new healthcare content produced by a leading healthcare university.  The curriculum is the most critical, not the only, element in a bundle.  Recognizing the need for ensuring inclusive participation across communities, Futuro Health also considered when to couple the training with financial and student supports.  Both became bundled with the Coursera training, while in comparison, the University of Delaware enrollees needed only tuition but not student supports.   

Futuro Health, in essence, curates and reassembles the learning journey’s components in this new model–drawing from education programs, student services, financial supports, and more. And where no content or services exist, Futuro Health does the work to expand or create that capacity.  Dignity Health Global Education and Guild Education offer for-profit versions of this bundling/unbundling model. 

Meaningful, stackable credentials can prepare adults for the pace of change.

This unbundling/rebundling approach is needed in all industry sectors now, not just health care. 

The prescription for change is clear: unbundle the curriculum, pull content from multiple disciplines (or providers), and rebuild content into smaller learning chunks – more short-term credentials. Couple the curriculum with other elements important in the student journey, such as financial and student supports. Now is the time for education providers to do that work, to assess their individual building blocks and look for ways to recombine them in order to improve the learning system for adults. Preliminary findings strongly support the idea of bundling learning into stackable credentials to help adults keep pace with the rate of change. 

Today’s storm of crises gives us a chance to reassemble learning in ways that can help adults persist and thrive in the future of work. Let’s not build back what was; let’s take that chance to instead create what workers and employers really need.