Textbook Example of Unbundling

Looking in the right places to see the transformation of a billion-dollar market. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Alec Whitters

credit-hlt-alec-whitters-unbundlingFor the unfamiliar, unbundling in business is the taking apart and selling of component parts that used to only come in one package. Examples include being able to access a specific television channel when it was previously only available by a package cable subscription, or selling a single song that used to come only as part of an album or CD.

Most often, dynamic-shifting technologies such as online video streaming or iTunes precipitate unbundling events because they change the way consumers access and use products.

In education, unbundling has been a goal, or at least an intended consequence of education entrepreneurs, investors and advocates for several years. Much of their interest and investment has been focused on breaking apart the traditional college education model of spending four years on a campus to earn a pre-packaged degree. The hope has been that a tech-enabled explosion of online learning options coupled with credentials or certifications for specific skills would liberate the learning pieces bundled inside a degree.

What we have not seen before is this pattern play out in academia – in teaching and learning.

Largely, those investing in or hoping for an unbundled higher education not only not only want education to be more accessible and less expensive – unbundling in other markets usually does both – they are also eager to see innovation and entrepreneurship disrupt the ivy-covered, calcified ways of the traditional education providers.

So far, though, the evidence that the degree is becoming unbundled is patchy. Many of the necessary technologies for unbundling are in place but the degree remains largely, stubbornly bundled. Some see this as evidence that education is uniquely resistant to consumer pressures or insulated from technology disruptions that have upended other marketplaces.

That’s the wrong lesson because it’s drawn from the wrong place. To the contrary, tech-driven unbundling of education is happening. It’s just not happening where most people are looking.

Textbooks – the big, expensive, indispensable anchors of academia – are being unbundled at a frenetic pace and the billion-dollar textbook marketplace is transforming to meet new consumer demands being driven by new technologies.

Like songs and albums before them, textbooks were set up for unbundling by the move to digital formats. What textbook companies originally fought – the threats of pirated and copied digital versions of their property – they now embrace. And not a moment too soon; in 2013 fully 80 percent of students said they preferred paper versions of textbooks but, by 2015, that was already down to just 40 percent. Today, almost all of the paper versions now include digital copies and digital-only versions of textbooks represent a significant and growing share of revenue.

But embracing digital was just the first step. Digital tech has morphed into mobile tech. Today, more than one in five millennials (21 percent) never even use a PC-style computer or laptop. But they do spend an average of three hours a day on their mobile devices.

Since mobile devices aren’t a good fit for 400 page textbooks, startups (such as ours) have pioneered mobile-specific learning platforms and re-engineered 400-page tomes into bite-size, fast-paced modules tailored not just for mobile devices but for newer, more tactile, and responsive learning styles of mobile users. It’s that shift – the shift to smaller, made-for-mobile learning pieces – that is finally unbundling the textbook for good. The chapter is no longer literally bound by the book, and the concepts are no longer bound by read-and-reply style learning.

Already, 93 percent of graduating nurses use mobile studying tools from my company alone. As do 87 percent of graduating dentists. That’s not a blip – that’s a fundamental change in the way people are receiving information products on par with the transition of movies from DVDs to on-demand services such as Netflix.

To capitalize on this new reality, traditional textbook publishers are beginning to convert their content to mobile-designed and mobile-style formats. Other publishers are partnering with existing mobile learning companies to get their products in the hands of consumers.

We’ve seen this before – technology transformation driving changes in consumer preferences to utterly change a market. Content creator HBO, for example, has bypassed cable providers entirely with HBOGo (their own platform) or through partnerships with existing delivery companies such as Sling.

What we have not seen before is this pattern play out in academia – in teaching and learning. But if you’ll pardon the obvious reference, the ongoing unbundling of textbooks is a textbook example of education unbundling.

It’s too early to tell whether this unbundling experience with textbooks and mobile learning will impact unbundling or disruptions elsewhere in education. But we can absolutely no longer say that education is immune to consumer or technology pressures. With textbooks, one of the very foundational ways people used to learn, the bundle, is already broken.

Alec Withers is CEO and co-founder of Higher Learning Technologies.


  1. These ideas seem to be well suited to the traditional 3 R’s or the equivalent- factual knowledge mastery. Thus it fits well with basics in STEM areas or STM, science/tech/medicine. With education shifting from the 3 R’s to the 4 C’s, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, textbooks regardless of formats are problematic

  2. “But we can absolutely no longer say that education is immune to consumer or technology pressures.”

    I’m not sure many people have been arguing that “education is immune to consumer or technology pressures”.

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