Responding to the ‘Spotify-ization’ of Education

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Monday, December 19, 2022
By Ajay Vinzé, Brett Josephson, Christine Landoll, JK Aier, Benjamin Kessler
Photo by iStock/Prykhodov
How our business schools can help universities, students, and other stakeholders navigate the ongoing unbundling of higher education.
  • Just as music consumers can now buy one song and not the whole album, learners can opt for more targeted, standalone offerings over more costly and time-consuming formal degree programs.
  • To co-create more modular content, schools across campus, from all disciplines, will need to share information and experiences at levels not usually seen at traditional universities.
  • Schools can win stakeholder approval for their new visions for higher education by presenting innovations as “evolution” rather than “disruption.”


Twenty years ago, if you heard a great song on the radio and wanted to play it on demand, you would most likely have had to drive to your local record store or big-box retailer. There, you would have had to purchase an entire CD of ten or more songs, for as much as 20 USD. There was no easy, legal way to buy just the song you wanted and leave the filler on the shelf.

The introduction of Apple’s iTunes Store in 2003 officially put an end to this coercive business model, enabling customers to pay a mere 1 USD to download an individual song. With the advent of Spotify and similar music streaming platforms, we now can group our favorite songs into playlists, curating a custom soundtrack for our lives and changing it as often as we like.

Consumers have not been the only ones to benefit from this innovation: The streaming revolution has lifted revenues in the music industry to record highs.

When we explain to our undergraduates how we used to buy and consume music, they often laugh and shake their heads in disbelief. Their responses illustrate how unquestioned norms can turn into arcane relics in the space of one generation.

There are clear signs that a similar process is at work in higher education. The rising popularity of alternative credentials—fueled by developments in online learning technologies—heralds a future where “higher education” is no longer synonymous with a singular pathway that leads a student toward an advanced degree. Rather, we are seeing a larger trend of the modularization, or unbundling, of higher education. Within this model, students might choose to earn technical certifications, complete skills-based short courses such as coding boot camps, or take massive open online courses instead of enrolling in traditional degree programs.

These options allow learners to make a more targeted commitment of time and money to acquire more specialized expertise. In other words, learners can download either a full “album” (read: degree) that will help them acquire generalist knowledge and broad-based skills or a “song” (read: credential) that is designed to meet a more immediate need.

At the same time, the burgeoning Spotify-ization of higher education has raised fundamental questions. In 2017, for example, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences cited lingering doubts regarding “the efficacy and return on investment of existing and emerging alternative pathways, and the value of alternative credentials.” After the pandemic produced an explosion in demand for online education, the urgency of the Academy’s concerns only increased.

As with any innovation, the contradiction (real or perceived) between accessibility and quality could delegitimize the entire enterprise of modular education. At the George Mason University School of Business in Fairfax County, Virginia, we believe that business schools can and should be trailblazers in demonstrating the legitimacy of this new model. In the process, we can realize the full potential of modularization across the higher education ecosystem.

Taking the Lead in Innovation

Needless to say, innovation in business education should start at home. Business schools can begin disaggregating existing degrees such as the MBA into modular, specialized courses that learners can either take as standalone offerings or apply toward a degree. Mason, for example, currently offers eight graduate certificate programs in business analytics, business fundamentals, accounting analytics, accounting for government contracts, forensic accounting, government accounting, global IT leadership, and IT strategy and digital transformation.

These programs, most of which can be completed in less than one year, offer learners the option of fully online or in-person delivery. Moreover, learners have the option of applying the credits they earn toward various master’s degrees.

Beyond this initial slate of modular offerings, we are doing as much as possible to ensure the value and relevance of alternative credentials. That’s why we strive to look at our offerings from the perspective of individual learners. Whether their ultimate aspiration is to become entrepreneurs, manage small operations, or climb the corporate ladder, they will need knowledge of disciplines such as accounting, finance, and marketing to get there.

As we shift to a business-driven modular education, we will diversify the portfolio of higher education to emphasize mass customization.

For example, today’s artists and freelance creatives are expected to function as managers of their own personal brands—they need to focus almost as much on building organic followings on social media as on the quality of their work. Indeed, one could argue that as wage earners today, we all are custodians of our own personal brands, though we may not be aware of it—that is, until we have to re-enter the job market.

In short, integrating core business skills into modular, stackable education helps learners of all stripes edge ahead of their competitors. Business schools can help learners navigate their options by acting as central hubs of learning within larger unbundled universities.

Starting Our Own Experiment

As we explore what this vision would look like in reality at our university, we are working with deans from nearly every other academic unit, from the performing arts to computer science. We are fortunate that, as Virginia’s largest public university, Mason has ample infrastructural and human-capital reserves, which should open up many possibilities for mass-customized modular education.

Indeed, we already have begun to experiment in this area. For example, Mason’s home region of Northern Virginia encompasses more than 100 wineries. With the help of local industry advisors, the School of Business has partnered with the School of Sport, Recreation and Tourism Management (SRTM) to design a minor in wine and craft beverage management. Similarly, the School of Business, SRTM, and College of Science have teamed up to create a minor in sport analytics, geared toward the emerging needs of the sports industry.

In order to operationalize this further, we are engaged in conversations with a number of colleges across campus, including the College of Engineering and Computing, College of Education and Human Development and the College of Science. As hypothetical examples of the type of credential we’re discussing, we could combine courses in public health, offered through the university’s College of Health and Human Services, with marketing courses to create a healthcare management credential. Or perhaps the business school’s existing forensic accounting certificate could be matched with journalism offerings from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to create a concentrated credential in forensic journalism.

Or, the management area of our business school could partner with Mason’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution to provide specialized training in cross-cultural negotiations and global team leadership. Theoretically, once completed, such co-created courses could be counted as credits toward a master’s degree from the business school, the partnering unit, or in some cases both.

Our vision is outward-looking as well. Northern Virginia is one of the most vibrant economies in the U.S., thanks to the federal government ecosystem and a rapidly diversifying private sector. Industry leaders and employers in the region shared with us that they have had to redirect resources that were previously devoted to training new hires to more pressing business concerns, such as research and development that will help their organizations contend with an increasingly uncertain climate. Therefore, one of their top priorities is finding talent that can create value from “day one” on the job. They want employees who not only are intimately familiar with their fields, but also do not need to be taught how to apply their domain knowledge to the core business.

Historically, higher education has followed a loosely Fordist model of mass production, consisting solely of dispensing uniform degrees. As Henry Ford famously stated, “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it’s black.” But as we shift to a business-driven modular education, we will diversify the portfolio of higher education to emphasize mass customization. Under this model, the “product” is professional talent, and the “customers” range from learners fufilling career aspirations to employers looking for quality candidates to venture capitalists scouting for their next investments.

These stakeholders are facing increasing competitive pressures in their markets. Without compromising academic integrity, universities could position themselves as the entities best equipped to satisfy the market’s mounting demand for highly trained, ready-to-go talent.

Looking Ahead

To bring this vision to fruition, we first will need to address a few essential issues. First, academic units must progress beyond a dated view that they need to compete for centralized resources or recognition. Instead, they must cultivate a spirit of silo-busting openness and collaboration. For schools and colleges to co-develop courses, they will be required to share information and experiences at levels not typical for universities.

Institutions might point to existing courses or programs that prefigure their innovative visions, which could establish precedent with governing bodies.

Second, academic administrators and representatives must work to form strong partnerships within the business community, so that business leaders will feel comfortable sharing their challenges and priorities. Senior administrators at George Mason University School of Business have been communicating extensively about our vision and its benefits. The feedback from industry has been energizing and enthusiastic, emboldening us to press further.

Finally, schools will have to align their plans with their own institutional rules and regulations. For instance, at Mason, we must communicate and collaborate with oversight agencies like the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), the coordinating body for higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  

Addressing Impediments to Transition

Depending on their operational environments, some institutions could have difficulties gaining buy-in for these ideas. However, we do see some possible solutions. One good tactic might be to emphasize evolution rather than disruption in messaging to stakeholders. In this way, administrators can dispel the “otherness” of innovation that could lead to resistance.

Institutions might also point to existing courses or programs that prefigure their innovative visions, which could establish precedent with governing bodies. That is the case at Mason.

For instance, the School of Business offers a state-approved seven-and-a-half-week accelerated semester for learners who need greater flexibility as they pursue education. And our College of Humanities and Social Sciences has an interdisciplinary studies program in which students can chart their own degree pathways across disparate academic areas.

Facing Implications of Irrevocable Change

Our proposal and approach are ambitious, but not unprecedented. What’s more, in our opinion, they are inevitable outgrowths of irrevocable changes in education and society. Universities cannot rebottle the technological and economic genies of our VUCA world, any more than the music industry can restore the popularity of the compact disc to its 1990s heyday.

By embracing innovation in close partnership with the business community, we can help propel a much-needed shift in higher education. In doing so, we will move our schools toward longer-term and more rewarding relationships with our students and the organizations they will serve, while contributing to the broader concept of lifelong learning.

Ajay Vinzé
Dean, GMU School of Business, George Mason University
Brett Josephson
Associate Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Executive Development, GMU School of Business, George Mason University
Christine Landoll
Professor of Practice and Director of Business Engagement, GMU School of Business, George Mason University
JK Aier
Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Global Engagement and Associate Professor, GMU School of Business, George Mason University
Benjamin Kessler
Research Communications and Outreach Officer, GMU School of Business, George Mason University
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