Reflections on Unbundled K-12 Education

After hearing from Anant Agarwal discuss his article on “unbundling” higher education during T509 last week, I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the implications of an unbundled K-12 education system.  Based on our class discussion, the Education Reform for the Digital Era report, and Justin Reich’s blog post, I have been feeling a little torn about this potential school system of the future.  The ideal implementation would truly open kids up to many new education opportunities and allow for personalized learning, but when has any implementation in education been ideal?  What types of benefits could we expect from an unbundled school system and what should we be skeptical about?

For maybe the first time on this blog, I am going to start by talking about the potential positives I see in an unbundled school system.  When first discussing the idea of unbundled schools, I had a really hard time thinking about what the actual benefits are in this system.  Today, however, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit NuVu Studio in Cambridge.  Started by architect Saeed Arida, NuVu Studio is a program that takes students out of their traditional school settings for 12 week periods during the school year to experience education in a new way.  Students at NuVu are organized into design teams to undergo rigorous problem-based learning focused on solving real-world problems in their community through an iterative design process.  In their 12 weeks, students take on several projects in 2-week chunks to learn how to navigate the design process in an attempt to solve large open-ended problems. The results are absolutely amazing and you should all definitely check out their website to learn more.

What was extremely interesting to me was the logistics behind NuVu.  When NuVu accepts a student, they partner with that student’s school to determine what needs to be done for that student to take-on this 12 week removal from traditional school.  Many of their students simply need to take a 1-2 online courses to augment their learning during those 12 weeks simply to meet legal requirements, but Saeed explained to me that teachers and school administrators have frequently been blown away by the amount of progress their students make while taking on projects at NuVu.

To me, this whole idea is the closest thing I have seen to unbundled education.  NuVu is a private, for profit company that has developed an extremely impressive education model that adds enormously to students’ educational experiences.  When thinking about why an unbundled school system could be desirable, this type of model definitely makes me second guess a lot of doubt.  It would be amazing to see the NuVu model scaled and made accessible to all students using their “backpacks” of education funding.  After my visit, I am now finding myself daydreaming about what other models could appear in an unbundled system.

Always the skeptic, however, I can definitely see the potential for unbundled school systems to do more harm than good.  Specifically, I believe the proposed models I have read through would definitely serve only to widen the opportunity gap we currently see between students in low and high-income communities.  The model presented in Education Reform for the Digital Age proposes that such gaps could be alleviated by giving students in low-income situations access to more funds in their  “funding backpack.”  They are making a key assumption here that I believe is fundamentally flawed:  the only thing preventing low and high-income students from performing at the same level is money.

From my experiences, money is only a very small part of the very large problem concerning education inequity.  My students who struggled with school encountered many problems including home environments not conducive for studying and doing homework, major family obligations such as babysitting or working part time to help pay bills, various traumatic experiences leading to emotional instability, and a lack of positive role models in their community to message the importance of education.  Simply unbundling a school system and allowing more choice in educational experiences will not take away the vast majority of these outside issues hindering quality education.  In the current system, schools already do not get enough funding to provide services for students with such profound needs.  I find it hard to believe that a new system would be able to increase funding per student substantially enough to make that difference.

I can also picture a world in which low-income communities would rapidly become educational deserts.  In providing funds for students to seek education elsewhere, many low-income students may take that opportunity to travel away from the historically failing schools in their communities to higher performing schools in neighboring locations.  When those schools inevitably reach capacity, what options will still exist for students?  As local failing schools inevitably fail due to lack of funding, how will students navigate new problems caused by a lack school options in their direct neighborhoods?  What new educational opportunities will form and how many of them will take the risk to enter low-income communities based on modern mindsets?  At what point will online learning or low quality education programs become the only option for some students in a system that was supposed to open-up opportunities?

As stated before, I definitely see how a world of unbundled K-12 education could have massive positive impacts on our current system.  I also wonder how such an innovative system would actually allow for removing substantial barriers to equity and access in today’s society.  How do we ensure that an unbundled education creates high quality education experiences for all learners and does not simply widen the gaps that already permeate the education landscape?

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Unbundled K-12 Education

  1. NuVu is super-interesting; what a great opportunity for students!

    The concept of unbundling is something that also stuck with me from our stacked panel last week. I do believe that eventually time and space will be unbundled from education, even k-12. There is no reason why learning has to happen in a specific place at specific time with a specific group of kids who happen to live in the same zip code.

    I can see a system in which students sort of dabble and take the best from different places. For example, not every school has to offer AP physics; maybe students take the best one online or from one school and take an intro history course from another school or online, etc. Why are all of our schools duplicating efforts and killing themselves to offer everything to all students, even towns that abut each other- why do we have these separate systems that cost tons of money and that don’t necessarily do great jobs of educating everyone equally?

    That being said, I do believe there are limitations to what people can teach themselves online independently, and we have to crack the nut of using online/blended learning to not only personalize the learning experience, but to use it as a tool to make learning as effective as possible for all.


  2. I think you bring up some very good points. I am also intrigued/worried about how unbundling would work in K12 settings.

    My initial thoughts are that the students who come from privileged families would be the ones who would be better able to take advantage of it. Students from low-income communities, as you say, may have a harder time. I wonder how they would get to better schooling environments, or how they would be able to study in their own homes as well.

    I’m really interesting in checking out NuVu!


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