Why “Uber for education” metaphors are flawed (and just rubbish)

I blogged last week about the ‘Netflix for learning” metaphors doing the rounds currently. These are just the latest incarnation in the long running analogy [Insert current tech business] for education/learning. It’s so predictable that I created a random generator for it. What follows is an extract from the upcoming Metaphors of Ed Tech book, which sets out why this type of metaphor is both not very useful, and also potentially harmful in developing effective ed tech.

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There is a very strange tendency in technology writing to take any successful business and view it as a universal acid that burns through everything. It seems the most accessible metaphor for much of ed tech is another technology company, and this is particularly seen when applying new models to education. We have had Netflix for education, the AirBnB of education, and inevitably Uber for education. This is in addition to the more literal instances of companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google having specific education programs.

So, although this chapter focuses on Uber, it can stand for any of the metaphors that take a current technology success story and apply it to education. Kundukulam argues that there are Uber models proliferating across many sectors, for example, dog walking, removals, even private jets. Therefore, it could be applicable to education he asserts, suggesting Uber’s essential offering is:

  • Two-sided platform which matches latent supply with unmet demand – teaching can be done by anyone with an expertise, and on a wider range of subjects than the current curriculum
  • On-demand, mobile access – what you want, and when you want it
  • High-quality, community-rated suppliers – rating of teachers allows poor ones to be filtered out.

There was the inevitable start-up (InstaEDU) which aimed to offer on demand tutorial support ‘just like calling an Uber, a student is in control of when and how they get the support they need, and are assured of the high quality of the service’.

Similarly, Burke reports an epiphany while getting an Uber, and concludes ‘In response to Uber, wise government officials like those in Portsmouth, New Hampshire are eliminating outdated regulations like taxi medallions and price controls. If we want to see more innovative educational options that benefit both consumers and providers, such as teacher-led schools, then we must also liberate learning.’

Burke’s argument is one of unbundling education into distinct components. Unbundling education refers to ‘the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts, very often with external actors’. A learner may get content, tuition, assessment and recognition from different providers. It is an idea that reoccurs often in higher education since the arrival of the internet. Reporting on the Unbundled University project which examined the extent to which it is occurring, Czerniewicz finds different forms of unbundling and rebundling both taking place within and from outside the university. She poses the following questions we should ask of unbundling approaches: ‘Who’s doing this monetizing? Why? For what purpose? Which types of knowledge are being valued? What is considered “valuable” in higher education? What is the meaning of the academic “brand”? Who is regulating and shaping those markets? And why is this all so urgent now?’

Woolf University, sought to combine several of the models, hailed as the ‘world’s first blockchain university’ and describing itself as ‘Uber for students, AirBnB for Professors’. The announcement of the start-up led to excitable headlines such as “The university is dead, long live the university”. However, by 2019 they had quietly dropped the blockchain tag. They then seemed to go rather quiet and at the time of writing in 2021 their site seemed to offer courses from their own Ambrose College, and a couple of other institutions. Courses cost around $1500 each and offered personalised tuition with weekly video calls (attempting to replicate the Oxbridge seminar model). There were no student testimonials and they hadn’t tweeted anything since October 2020, indicating that this model had gone the way of so many. Transforming start-ups into a viable business is of course a notoriously difficult task, and so the failure of some should be no surprise. However, maybe these ones have failed to have the impact anticipated by some is because ‘Uber for education’ is a fundamentally flawed idea.

One of the issues with metaphors such as ‘Uber for education’ is that they necessitate that the proposer is uncritical of the original model. If you are suggesting a radical new model for education then you don’t want to start by considering all the problems inherent in the original model, as it is meant to be a solution to the problems of education, rather than having its own set. But of course, there are considerable issues with Uber in its original form. When it filed paperwork for an initial public offering, this revealed a number of problems with Uber’s business and operating model. These included criticisms of aggressive workplace culture, legal disputes and poor treatment of drivers which makes them ineligible for benefits, minimum wage, overtime and worker’s compensation insurance. Its business model has been criticised as unsustainable, as it loses money on every ride. McBride argues that after losing $5 billion in one quarter its options are to pay drivers less or increase prices, but neither of these is possible because drivers are already operating near minimum wage and Uber is in a price war with competitors. Their model would seem to be to take losses until they reach a state of monopoly and then increase prices. They have barriers in realising this since many cities and countries are effectively banning Uber, for example London initially removed their licence after it was found that drivers faked their identity.

Some of these issues may be peculiar to Uber, but in general they represent factors that are essential to the Uber model, which are the removal of many labour conditions and undercutting cost in an attempt to establish a global monopoly. Far more than the app, and the convenience, these are the elements we should map across for an Uber for education model, and then it might seem less appealing.

The basic idea of an Uber for education metaphor is that universities will be made redundant (again, it would seem) because individual learners will go direct to a marketplace of private educators. As well as the deep problems such a model relies upon as highlighted above, people rarely consider why a sector isn’t like Uber.

In order to do so, let’s examine the key elements of the Uber offering:

  • A taxi ride is a brief interaction. It helps if the consumer likes the driver, but it’s generally over in 15 minutes, so the consumer doesn’t have to worry too much about investment in the transaction.
  • A taxi ride may vary in some local variables in terms of car, environment etc but it’s essentially the same product every day and anywhere in the world.
  • It is something that a lot of people possess the equipment for (a car) and the capability (driving)
  • The consumer has experience in this type of transaction and knows what they want from it (to get to their destination safely and at low cost)
  • Getting a taxi is largely a solitary pursuit
  • It utilises mobile technology and pervasive connectivity to overcome some of the limitations of the previous model, such as waving down a cab or finding the number of a local provider.

Turning to education then, very few of those conditions are replicated, which has the following characteristics:

  • It requires a long-time frame (certainly longer than 15 minutes usually) to gain the required outcome. This requires considerable more investment, both monetary and time, from the individual so they need to build a more complex relationship of trust.
  • It is very diverse, both geographically and by discipline, so any model would be required to replicate such diversity and thus be difficult to use, compared with the simplicity of Uber
  • While there maybe a large pool of people who can act as tutors, the ability to construct a curriculum or design a learning activity that can be effectively delivered online is quite rare. Also, while gaining a driving licence is fairly easy, being licensed to offer formal credit for learning is a complex highly regulated process.
  • Meno’s paradox argues that if you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Put simply, if you’re a learner in a new discipline then you don’t know what it is that you need to know. This means it is very difficult to bypass institutions that are constructed to help learners overcome this very problem.
  • Learning is often a social activity that is undertaken with a cohort of people with similar interests, goals, and in collaborative activities.
  • Education is already engaging with online learning and mobile delivery, so it’s not obvious it is solving a problem.

There are already some aspects of an Uber type model in education. For instance, it is often difficult for an institution to compete with an individual consultant on price for research that doesn’t require large resources. The overheads of a university make a bid excessive compared to a lone researcher working out of a home office. Similarly, the online tutoring model is already underway and is likely to expand, particularly in combination with OERs and MOOCs. It will largely be in conjunction with higher education though, and not in competition or as a replacement to it.

Most successful start-ups are based on transformation of a labour model, usually to the detriment of workers, and these are the elements we should consider in any such metaphor. Also, the appeal of apps and businesses like Uber is their simplicity for the user. It is not impossible to address all of the reservations set out above in some Uberized fashion, but it would likely end up being a convoluted, unwieldy affair that would defeat the very object of its existence. And that is the biggest difference between Uber and education from the consumer perspective – getting a taxi is simple (although driving a taxi well is an expert skill), gaining an education is complex. That’s why we value it highly – after all, you put letters after your name to indicate your education, not to show how many taxi rides you’ve taken.

Uber for education can be seen as an example of a broader metaphorical trend which is how the language and values of start-up culture have been co-opted into education. One example of this is the cherished status of risk, and that universities, educators and students need to be less risk averse. However, this deification of risk is often a proxy for justifying privilege in which someone successful feels their status is merited because they were willing to take the risk. But risk is itself, often a privilege.

Blanchflower & Oswald investigated what successful entrepreneurs had in common, and their overwhelming conclusion was that it had nothing to do with personality, or genes, but rather ‘It is access to start-up capital that matters’. Not only do entrepreneurs not have a higher propensity for risk, but according to Xu and Ruef in a controlled experiment ‘nascent entrepreneurs are more risk-averse than non-entrepreneurs’. However, highlighting privilege is unpopular in start-up culture, which has a belief in meritocracy. But access to capital and a comfortable background seem to be the more salient factors than any personality related ones. Groth concludes ‘there’s certainly a lot of hard work that goes into building something, there’s also a lot of privilege involved—a factor that is often underestimated.’

For those who promote the value of risk, it is not limited to taking risks with their own career however, it also means they’re happy to risk other people’s welfare too. A very senior university manager once told me they loved risk, but that was perhaps because they were unaffected by it. They would likely go on to a well-paid job elsewhere if the risk did not pay off, and crucially not only would they be untouched by any failure of their risk but it would likely boost their status. They become a person willing to take risk, which has increased currency in a world where the metaphor for all institutions is the Silicon Valley start-up. Compare their likely outcome with that of an academic in their fifties who may be made unemployed with little chance of re-employment as a result of the change they sought to introduce. The risk of risk is not distributed evenly.

Risk becomes a vehicle by which privilege reinforces itself – only the privileged can take risks and then risk is rewarded beyond other attributes. Which is not to say we should all be cautious and people or institutions should never venture to do unusual things. But it is important to ask ‘who is really at risk?’, and to recognise that the veneration of risk comes from assuming the start-up culture is an appropriate metaphor for higher education. The ‘Uber for education’ metaphor is one example of how this culture has permeated much of education, and shapes public discourse, but the review of our attitudes to risk taking reveal that is far more deeply entrenched than simply one or two analogies of popular tech companies.

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