The Packaging Is the Problem

Higher education's products remain in demand, but our packaging is the problem, Anthony R. Wheeler writes.

August 8, 2022
Eleven cardboard packages float in space, against a white background.
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In a seemingly quinquennial occurrence, higher education finds itself on the defensive. A global pandemic kicked off the latest soul-searching, existential crisis in higher education. Despite largely meeting the pedagogical and technological challenges of switching from in-person to remote instruction during the middle of an academic term, questions about the value and future of higher education abound.

Why haven't colleges and universities already offered all of their courses online? What is the value of a degree in today's world? Why do colleges and universities continue to adapt so slowly?

Traditional colleges and universities face growing competition from companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, all of which have ventured into education by offering certifications. These companies have the technological platforms and global reach to widely disseminate the practical knowledge -- currently in the form of certificates or "micro-credentials" -- that employers seek instead of the abstract knowledge that many academic programs embed in their curricula.

But a closer examination of the certifications currently offered by those companies and others reveals a repackaging of content that colleges and universities have developed and disseminated for decades. Those companies, after all, do not offer educational opportunities around their intellectual property. Google and Facebook are not about to teach the world about their algorithms and technologies. While Amazon has a robust revenue stream from selling its users' data, it has little interest in teaching the world how to do the same.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: the reports of the death of higher education are greatly exaggerated.

I feel confident in making this assertion exactly because of the educational content offered by myriad companies and non-profit organizations as certificates. These certifications simply repackage information that any college student would learn in mostly introductory courses on topics like management, project management, marketing, and basic coding or database management.

What the emergence of these non-academic certifications tells us in higher education, however, is that while the market needs our content, we do not package our content in easily usable ways. We, as an industry, largely remain tethered to academic credits, degree programs, and semester- or term-based calendars. We have wrapped our product into packaging that is difficult to open.

Look at companies like Uber and Airbnb: The same business model underlies these companies but for different products. You spend considerable money to purchase or lease a vehicle; yet that vehicle spends more time parked on the street or in your carpark than it does on the highway. You spend large sums of money to purchase or rent your home, but if you frequently travel, that home sits empty while you are away.

Uber and Airbnb allow you to maximize the use and value of your investments by renting the time you do not need those products to customers who need those products.

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Now consider what happens in your typical college or university course. By training, I am a human resources management professor, who irregularly teaches a course on staffing. I have spent thousands of hours conducting primary research on staffing. I have spent thousands of additional hours reading other scholars' research on staffing. I have attended myriad conferences learning about cutting-edge research and practices on staffing. I have billed hundreds of hours of consulting fees to companies that need my expertise to improve their staffing functions and strategies.

I have turned all of this expertise into a highly refined course for graduate students. If I am lucky, I teach it once a year to M.B.A. students for just sixteen weeks that span a total of 45 direct contact hours with my students. My course sits unused multiple times more than it is used.

The market, as evidenced by the proliferation of certificates, cries out for people like me to package my product in ways that are more accessible to learners all over the world.

Higher education's problem isn't that we do not have the right knowledge to disseminate. Our problem is that we leave our knowledge on the shelf -- like inventory in a warehouse -- because of how we have organized our curricula. We remain the creators of knowledge, but we need to reimagine how we deliver that knowledge.

Higher education has reached an inflection point, and the pedagogical and technological leaps we made in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic should give us confidence that we can deliver our expertise in new ways. We can still have our traditional academic, credit-based courses, but we can also deconstruct those courses into modules -- brief, focused, topical -- that we can deliver year-round across multiple platforms. Our learners don't have to be degree-seeking students.

Modularized content incentivizes academics to keep their content up-to-date while also incentivizing colleges and universities to continually and rapidly prototype new packaging of in-demand certificates. This model creates curriculum incubators that help academics better serve markets.

Like extracting the most value possible out of our vehicles or homes, academics need to maximize the value of their expertise to a world that needs it more than ever. Creating and disseminating knowledge is what we do; we simply need to reframe how we deliver it to more learners.

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Anthony R. Wheeler is dean of the School of Business Administration at Widener University in Pennsylvania. He recently published a book, coauthored with M. Ronald Buckley, on the future of work: HR Without People?: Industrial Evolution in the Age of Automation, AI, and Machine Learning (Emerald Publishing, 2021).

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