Reflections from AltC: Unbundling, rebundling and the ‘new normal’ for higher education

In this blog post Rebecca Swartz, part of the The Unbundled University: researching emerging models in an unequal landscape team, relates her impressions of the AltC conference, where she and Alan Cliff presented on the project.

Alan Cliff and I recently had the opportunity to attend  AltC, held at the University of Liverpool from 5-7 September 2017. The theme of the conference, ‘Beyond islands of innovation – how Learning Technology became the new norm(al)’, provoked interesting discussion about the nature of technological change in higher education today, and urged participants to consider the language of ‘disruption’ in higher education discourse. The conference attracted university-based researchers and learning technologists, as well as representatives from the private sector. One of the most interesting parts of the conference was talking to private providers in the Exhibition Hall. This gave Alan and I a sense of the plethora of educational technologies on offer to institutions in the UK, as well as drawing our attention to the changing nature of higher education provision in that context.

Particularly relevant to our project was the keynote address given by Bonnie Stewart, educator and researcher at the University of Prince Edward Island. Bonnie’s work is concerned with digital identity and knowledge, and she has published on MOOCs, academic twitter and open learning. Her keynote, (you can view it here), which kicked off the conference on 5 September, challenged participants to question norms in education. She drew attention to the way in which educational norms, or even disruptions, can serve to legitimate pre-existing power structures. She referred to the process of ‘unbundling’, saying that while learning technologies might cause disruptions in higher education, this might not be able to preserve institutions in the face of funding pressures and rising student numbers. She argued that open models could entrench existing power relations, but could also break down barriers to create greater access across the sector.  This was captured in this infographic depicting her talk. She was ultimately concerned not with the process of ‘unbundling’ of higher education, but rather with the ways in which ‘re-bundling’ might occur. The talk reminded us that we should be cognisant of the ways that new forms of provision might in fact use pre-existing models, language and structures to function. Thus, what might seem ‘new’ might not change the dynamics between students and lecturers, enhance accessibility or even alter student learning.

The conference also provided an opportunity for us to present some preliminary observations from our data. We gave a five-minute lightning talk which gave us the (challenging) opportunity to distil our project’s focus down to its most important points. We also presented a poster that used quotations from our data to illustrate emerging themes from the project’s 30+ South African interviews conducted to date.  The four themes we focused on were:  catalysts for change provision, perceptions of partnerships, reasons for engaging in partnerships, and the level of uncertainty regarding new forms of provision in a rapidly changing higher education context. Although we are in the early stages of analysis, these themes – of change, uncertainty and adaptation – seemed to dovetail well with Bonnie Stewart’s talk, as they draw attention to the difficulties associated with engaging in ‘new’ forms of provision in the context of educational inequality. As we enter the next phase of data collection, it will serve us well to remember to question the ways in which decisions are made regarding changes in provision, and whose interests these changes protect, serve or overlook.