Dr. Bob Habib, Instructional Systems Specialist at the Department of Homeland Security

Dr. Bob Habib serves as an Instructional Systems Specialist for the Department of Homeland Security where he develops training policy for the US Coast Guard, as well as a professor for the School of Business & Leadership at Regent University. Prior to coming to Regent and the USCG, he served as a teacher for Virginia Beach Public Schools and was an instructional designer for mid and senior-level leadership courses for the DoD and DHS. Most recently, he has helped spearhead an international initiative driven by Edify Online to partner with MIT-World Peace University where he designs, develops, and facilitates Design Entrepreneurship and Strategic Business courses for students in Pune, India. Dr. Bob also serves as a consultant for innovation initiatives and change management for many national organizations and has spearheaded numerous initiatives from inception to implementation. Some of these initiatives have led to millions of dollars in net revenue gain and have gained national recognition within the higher education industry.


If you have ever been inside an IKEA store (or even to its website), you start to get an appreciation for its love for modular living. IKEA has seemingly refused to embrace the cookie-cutter approach within the furniture retail landscape – a refreshing paradigm for this author. Everywhere you look there are endless combinations of furniture pieces on display, to help you see those pieces in your home or office and ensure they will fit. They want you (perhaps challenge you) to piece various components together in an ala carte fashion to come up with the best combination for your needs. They don’t require the customer to simply accept what is offered, rather they offer scores of variations and packages that can be tailored to the uniqueness of one’s home/space. You come to the table with what you need and then you leave with exactly that.

Regarding its sofa offerings, IKEA states:

“The great thing with a modular fabric sofa is that you can create your own combination, so you get exactly what you want. Then you can adapt or add on to what you have if your needs change.”

This approach is not only tailored to the individual at the initial purchase but can be changed based on future needs or desires.

Why couldn’t we approach education this way?

In a previous article back in January, I challenged higher education at large to strongly consider integrating Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) at scale. Such efforts would not only give credit where credit is due but would be a primary driver toward customization of the education experience. Why require a student to take courses that cover skills and competencies they have already mastered? Now, taking this a step further, what happens when a student can demonstrate mastery of only 50% of a particular course’s objectives? No credit? Partial credit? Do they just sit around in sheer boredom during the sections or modules they have already mastered? There must be a better use of time and resources for the student and the institution. In comes the IKEA model.

Let’s consider modularizing the curriculum.

Once there is some standardization with how curriculum modules are presented, let’s allow students to engage with the modules they need instead of the all-or-nothing approach. Imagine a system where students could ‘shop’ for the modules they need, place those in their respective registration carts, and then check out. Costs could still be presented at a per-credit rate, it’s just that those credits would be parsed out per module instead of per course. The reality is many institutions already have some form of modularization happening in their courses. Proven to be highly effective, Regent University’s online business and leadership courses are eight weeks in duration, each containing four periods (modules) of two weeks in length. The structure is already in place, but designers would need to consider grouping those modules based on learning/performance objectives and ensure each module could serve as a standalone unit. Sounds complicated? It really isn’t. Here’s an example of how this could look for a Principles of Marketing class at The Ohio State University:

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the role of marketing within society and within an economic system.
  2. Learn the vital role of marketing within a firm and the necessary relationships between marketing and the other functional areas of business.
  3. Consider the various decision areas within marketing and the tools and methods used by marketing managers for making decisions.
  4. Learn key marketing principles and terminology.
  5. Appreciate how a marketing perspective is important in your own personal and professional development.

Without debating the merit of the verbs used in these objectives (we’ll save that for another time), what if a student completed a PLA and it was determined that they could demonstrate mastery of #4 and #5 only. Have them put modules #1-3 in their carts, pay, and complete them when available. Once those modules have been completed, they will receive full credit for the course. Besides resequencing these modules for the course, we’d also have to ensure there was no overlap and identify what prerequisites existed. Rinse and repeat for all courses in the catalog where it makes sense. Yes, I know, simple on paper but at scale, much more difficult to implement.

Roadblocks to consider which will require significant conversations include accreditation factors, course/module availability, staffing required to modularize courses, LMS functionality, registrar and business offices, and culture shifts. Since there is more research needed in these areas, rely on your experts to put on their black hats (the careful and cautious ones from De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats) to balance out those of us who wear the green hats proudly (the big idea folks).

Lastly, the culture piece. Higher education is sometimes like a cruise ship. It takes quite some time, effort, and resources to make big muscle movements (turn and/or stop), and make no mistake, this strategy is big. Culture shifts require numerous smaller movements that can be used as building blocks toward the desired state. Having a strategy that includes effective communication at all levels particularly with faculty, gaining of champions across the campus, and pilot testing will be essential. A colleague of mine often states, “If you are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work necessary to make such a shift, your symptoms are normal.” Remember that perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

The modularization strategy not only changes the way courses are structured, offered, and paid for but will undoubtedly change the higher education landscape at large. Finally, the learner can get excited about a customized experience that they, in essence, control. With unrelenting conversations surrounding the value of higher education, this timely conversation presents a plausible piece of the solution. It’s time to move away from the ginormous one-piece sectionals and go education shopping the IKEA way.

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