Why do education secretaries hate online learning?

I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.

Gavin Williamson exerted pressure on universities to return to face to face or they would be fined, and viewed online as a cost-cutting measure and they didn’t justify full fees. It seems that Nadhim Zahawi can barely type the words “online learning” in an open letter, without retching. He mentions ‘face-to-face’ eight times in his letter, and in case you don’t get the message: “We expect face-to-face teaching to continue” & “We all know that face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn”. And in an interview with GBNews (not going to link to it) he gave the gammons what they want when he declared “there is no excuse for online teaching”, in the manner that someone might declare there is zero tolerance for abuse within their organisation.

And similar opinions have been voiced in other countries, so in order to save myself potential damage from excessive eye-rolling and heavy sighing, I’ve tried to pick through the reasons behind this seemingly irrational distaste. Here are my contenders for reasons, some more valid than others:

A genuine concern about the validity of online learning – I’m not here to pretend online is always done well, or that it suits everyone or that there aren’t issues. So maybe they’re just concerned about it. If so, I would suggest not painting it as a cheap option (it isn’t), or lazy (definitely not) and instead focus on promoting the benefits and funding areas to overcome the issues.

Playing to the voters – this is probably a strong one. GBNews, the Daily Mail – these are core constituents who are generally sceptical of online things and anything invented after 1955. They will definitely view an online degree as inferior, and many of them may be parents, or grandparents of university aged children, and so it makes sense to play to them.

Concern for students – this may also be a valid frame, particularly if one views students as customers. The customers have paid for a face to face education, and that is not what they are getting. Therefore they should get a refund. The ‘product’ view makes sense with washing machines, but has always been a difficult perspective for education.

Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latin, discipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.

What all of the above combine to do is to create a lack of motivation to engage with online learning in any meaningful sense by consecutive education secretaries. There is nothing to be gained, politically, from doing so. But there is a real potential for some nations to grasp this opportunity and make online a central part of higher ed provision, and that will do more to prepare students for any workplace or society of the future than any number of cosy seminars with Oxbridge dons.

Vinyl of the year

End of the year posts inbound! Starting off with my vinyl selections of the year. I bought a lot of records this year, hey, it was 2021, whatever it takes. I’m restricting choices here to a) records I own and b) that came out this year. I’m too much of a radical, free thinker to go with a top 10, so I’m going with some random categories instead.

Pop is art dammitClaud: Super Monster. Claud is the type of artist who might have chosen political punk or avant-garde for their outlet, but instead has selected the perfectly crafted pop song as the artistic form of choice. Classified as ‘bedroom pop’ these 13 tracks document teenage confusion, coming of age, falling in love and worrying about your role in the world. But in a dancey, boppy kinda way.

Alternative choice – Self Esteem: Prioritise Pleasure. Self Esteem’s (aka Rebecca Taylor) debut album is a delight. She’s a witty lyricist (“Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive”) & it’s big, brassy pop – no slinking off to a cabin in the mountains for our Rebecca.

Lockdown therapyCassandra Jenkins: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Part folk, part jazz, part psychotherapy session, part hippie mysticism, Jenkins album was a soothing balm to the existential dread of lockdown that dominated much of the start of the year. It contains two bona fide classics in Hard Drive and New Bikini, but it’s the album as a whole that will save you hundreds of pounds on therapy. While it may not be the best medical advice, when she softly sings that the water cures everything, it makes you want to get in the car and drive to the ocean and think that maybe it will all be ok.

Alternative choice – Still Corners: The Last Exit. If Jenkins album has you heading to the beach, then the Still Corners album provides the perfect soundtrack for a drive to the mountains. It’s like a Lynchian road movie – deserts, wolves, deserted highways abound. Written in lockdown it provides a cinematic escape to a bigger world when we couldn’t go further than 5 miles from home. It may be a bit cliche in this at times, but when going to the bottom of your garden seemed like an adventure, this was a perfect antidote.

Ridiculously talented multi-instrumental womanEmma Jean Thackray: Yellow. Thackray is a jazz bandleader and on her debut, her philosophy seems to have been “sod it, let’s include everything”. It feels like Earth Wind and Fire at times, the Mama and the Papas at others, and some drugged out 60s Monterey jazz festival at others. It’s full of mysticism, but don’t let that put you off, it’s a blast. Pitchfork called it ‘supremely impractical’ and, for someone whose favourite Clash album is Sandinista, that sounds like a badge of honour.

Alternative choice – Jane Weaver: Flock. This could also have been a contender in the Pop is Art category. Weaver brings together Prince like funk, psychedelia and cheeky bounce to produce a pop album with edge and charm.

Rock’s not quite deadWolf Alice: Blue Weekend. This is an album I would have listened to endlessly as a teenager. It comprises a range of styles from the indie-folky “Safe From Heartbreak” to riot girrl “Play the Greatest Hits” and dreamy “The Beach”. It’s eclectic, but all within their range, and feels confident and mature. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell uses several songs to take elegant swipes at the laddish rock n roll world and creepy guys in the music world.

Alternative choice – The Middle Kids: Today We’re The Greatest. Aussie indie rock band The Middle Kids released an album full of sing along in your car at full voice tunes, including the joyous “I don’t care”. It’s a shame so many festivals were called off, this album would have been perfect and propelled them to megastar status.

Indie attitudeDry Cleaning: New Long Leg. Featuring the droll, bored vocals of Florence Shaw over Stoogesesque bass lines and discordant guitar, and some of the oddest lyrics this or any year. She sounds like she might die of ennui as she intones about the Antiques Roadshow and eating hotdogs. When she does occasionally sing it’s slightly off key as if singing is for losers. Dry Cleaning would probably be mean to you at a party but they’re so cool you’d want to be their friends anyway. Do everything and feel nothing indeed.

Alternative choice – Snail Mail: Valentine. Expanding on the indie sound of her debut, Lush, Lindsey Jordan’s second album documented heartbreak, anger and defiance (all three emotions captured in the lyric “Why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?”). Snarling and tender by turns it has definite attitude.

Smart and funkyLittle Simz: Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert. Being an introvert is not a subject that often features in rap, but in her breakthrough album Little Simz explores different aspects of her identity, including introversion. It has dramatic orchestral arrangements, sweet harmonies, Nigerian rhythms and clever rhymes. Lauryn Hill, with whom she toured, is perhaps the closest comparison, but she’s also very much her own thing. An extraordinary record.

Alternative choice- Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams. Parks has been so lauded and this album has become such an established soundtrack, that it’s easy to forget it was released this year. The 20-year singer songwriter breezed in with an album of all killer, no filler, full of pop culture references (Nikes and Robert Smith). In a roundabout way, her songwriting is reminiscent of early Arctic Monkeys, a form of casual reportage, whether it be about helping a friend with depression, seeing a couple argue in the street or falling for someone who’s a friend (and of the same gender).

We’re all Secretly CanadianFaye Webster: I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha. In which Webster answers the question “what would someone raised on Marvin Gaye and the Smiths sound like?” It’s on the fabulous Secretly Canadian label for a start and is a mix of alt RnB, with country twinges and indie lyrics. Pitchfork said it was the “sound of the saddest person you follow on social media”, but it’s also mellow, and full of self-deprecating wit. This is the album I tried to force on other, but no-one listened. As she says, it’ll make you want to cry in a good way.

Alternative choice – Le Ren: Leftovers. Also on the Secretly Canadian label was this timeless folk album from Montreal’s Lauren Spear. It could have been recorded any time from the 70s to now and sometimes you just want a woman with a great voice singing some heartbreaking folky bluegrass tunes.

When you get a bit older it’s often the case that people decry the music of today, declaring that it isn’t as good as 1983 or whatever year they hold in nostalgic reverence. But this year has been great for music. I would have loved to have had this array of music when I was 15. So no crankiness and shuffling off to play your Jam albums, revel in the best of 2021…

You can listen to a couple of tracks from the new release vinyl I bought this year (also allowing reissues) on this Spotify playlist.

25+ Years of EdTech – 2021: MS Teams


Despite the book 25 Years of Ed tech finishing with 2018 (aww, remember 2018?), I’ve kept it going with one entry for each year since. The criteria for selection was the year I think they became significant, in that people talked about them a lot. And inclusion does not denote approval (hence the presence of blockchain in 2017).

2020 was predictably the online pivot. By choosing a more specific technology in MS Teams for 2021 I am continuing this theme, but the focus is now perhaps on longer term trends and what the choice of Teams denotes. Of course, Teams has been pretty significant in education for a while now, but I think 2021 saw its dominance as the workplace technology of choice for many HEIs. According to the ALT Survey it was the most used tech in 2020, and I expect that will be the same for 2021. This is significant in a number of ways I feel.

First, just as the online pivot provided a boost to online teaching, so it has shifted online working up a gear. Even with the return to campus, many meetings are now held online by default. This is a dramatic shift in attitude, and Teams has become the de facto means for this. How many of us now spend nearly all our working day jumping from one Teams meeting to the next? The implications of this for work culture, employment, and just the nature of education will be long reaching.

Second, it’s MS Teams fer chrissakes. I mean it doesn’t fill you with joy as a prospect for the environment where you will now spend the majority of your working life. It’s not terrible as a collaborative tool, but it’s interesting to consider why it has won out. Partly it is an example of the rule where “universal and good enough” will win out over many different specialised tools – we saw this with the web browser and the VLE. Also what it really demonstrates is the power of legacy. Teams plugs into existing IT infrastructure in most HEIs and was already in use when the pandemic hit. It was a no brainer then to ramp up its use when required then, instead of, say switching to Google or something new.

Third, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Having a system (any system) that is widely used by staff and students provides opportunities to share easily. For instance, a colleague at another uni told me how they’re using Teams to catch rolling qualification feedback and issues from students, rather than hosting events or putting it in the modules. Because staff and students are in the platform all the time, this is proving much more effective than methods they’d tried previously.

To reiterate, selection in 25 Years doesn’t imply endorsement. But I think we’ll look back at 2021 in future years and see it as the year that embedded Teams in HEIs and marked the shift to hybrid working. In that sense 2021 might well be viewed as an opportunity missed to take a different path.

The urgent need for the UK Open Textbook pivot

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

It seems that the online pivot may prove to be the point at which UK Higher education becomes interested in open textbooks. A few years ago we carried out some research on the UK Open textbook project. looking at differences between North America (where the idea of open textbooks had taken off to an extent) and the UK (where it hadn’t). There were some cultural differences which accounted for this, for instance the cost of textbooks in the UK did not form such a substantial percentage of an undergraduate’s overall expenditure, and UK academics tended to use a range of textbooks on reading lists, rather than specifying one. This lessened the financial motive for open textbook adoption, although academics expressed an interest in being able to modify the text.

This situation has changed significantly since the pandemic. The online pivot saw a greater demand for ebooks as students were no longer physically located near their library. Never ones to let a crisis not provide an opportunity, educational publishers increased the licensing costs of ebooks to libraries (as Jenny Rothschild puts it “ebooks for libraries are really, really, really expensive“). This has led to the well organised eBookSOS campaign. And then recently Pearson has announced a 500% hike in the average cost of their textbooks, causing much justifiable outrage from librarians on Twitter.

Of course, there’s no reason for ebooks to be so expensive. It’s a case of creating false scarcity. No reason apart from large profit margins that is. If we kick up a fuss they sometimes back down over pricing, but it’s clear that the relationship between educational publishers and education is not a mutually beneficial one any longer.

The mindset of the large commercial publishers seems more like a colonial one, seeking to plunder for maximum profits rather than a mutually beneficial partnership with those working in higher ed. Giving content to them is akin to supplying the arsonist outside your house with kindling.

In this context, Open Textbooks represent not so much a good price challenge to commercial textbooks, but a means of preserving some of the very point about the existence of textbooks in the first place – as a means to share knowledge and a vehicle for education. The online pivot has highlighted the fractured nature of our relationship with the large education publishers, and requires a second pivot – to open models of textbook production and adoption. The 2019 recommendations of our UK Open Textbook project seem even more pertinent now:

  • A nationally funded project can rapidly promote awareness of open textbooks, using the combination of targeted conferences and institutional workshops.
  • The open textbook model can be promoted by building on existing knowledge of open access
  • The use of the reading list represents an advantage in that it is relatively straightforward to make one item on a reading list an open textbook without requiring substantial change to a course. This present a lower threshold for staff to engage with open textbooks compared to adopting an
    open textbook for a complete course.
  • Librarians exhibited strong interest and are responsible for the budgets relating to textbook purchasing, and they represent a key stakeholder in open textbook adoption.

Putting the Meh in MOOCs

Cover of the GO-GN annual research review featuring one penguin ski jumping while two look on and one reads a newspaper
Penguin LOLs

First up, exciting news! GO-GN have published their annual research review. Led once again by Rob Farrow, this contains reviews of a number of papers in the open education space. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive literature analysis, but rather a selection of articles that we think cover some of the main areas. They are reviewed by members of the network and it’s an excellent example of the many hands makes light work principle of co-production. It’s worth a read all the way through for anyone interested in OER or OEP.

For the review I took on three MOOC papers. Individually they were all fine papers, and well written and researched. But overall, I was left with the feeling of “is that it?” Next year marks a decade since “The Year of the MOOC” and after all that disruption (sooo much disruption), and death of universities, what we actually have is less “Massive” and more “meh”. Allow me to explain…

The first paper was Castaño-Muñoz, J. & Rodrigues, M. (2021). Open to MOOCs? Evidence of their impact on labour market outcomes. This looked at whether participation in MOOCs has an impact on employability for the participants, which you’ll recall was a big claim of MOOCs. The method they used was to focus on two very employment oriented MOOCs in Spanish. They used two surveys, one in 2015 prior to the MOOC and one again in 2017. This more longitudinal study is rare, so it’s a very useful piece of research to undertake. Their main findings are that MOOC participation had no impact on wages but did increase the likelihood of workers continuing to work at the same firm and performing the same job.

The second paper was de Souza, N. S. & Perry, G. T. (2021). Women’s participation in MOOCs in the IT area. The authors examined data from over 4,000 learners across four MOOCs on a Brazilian platform, to examine whether women’s student profile, persistence and grades differed from those of men studying the same MOOCs. In general they found that difference between men and gender was not a factor in motivation, performance and persistence. This is an example of where a no difference finding is actually interesting (although the authors note that the common trait across MOOCs of participants being relatively privileged was seen here also).

The third paper was Li, H., Zhao, C., Long, T., Huang, Y., & Shu, F. (2021). Exploring the reliability and its influencing factors of peer assessment in massive open online courses. This paper examined the reliability of peer assessment in MOOCs. You may remember that the large scale and lack of formal support in many MOOCs led to many people proposing peer assessment as a solution to the scale issue. By examining over 5,700 submissions, across 18 assignments in three different MOOCs on a Chinese platform, the authors investigated the reliability of peer assessment in the MOOC context. They report that peer reviewers tended to give scores at the extremes and that peer assessment was not particularly reliable. They conclude that peer assessment should avoid being used as a summative assessment method in MOOCs. They point out that this is not the case in formal education, and that is perhaps not a surprise, as peer assessment requires advice and support to get right.

I admired all three of these papers, they were meticulous and had interesting findings. They’re my kind of papers. But given the hype we had all that time ago, collectively they ask the question was it all worth it? We have online courses that don’t revolutionise employment, don’t democratise education and whose pedagogy is flawed. Of course, you could find examples to counter these, they weren’t selected to represent all MOOC findings. But they do feel typical of the sort of results we get now. And that should be a lesson for the next ed tech revolution – when it all washes out you’ll have some quite interesting findings, but hardly any of the initial claims will still be left standing. Vive la revolution.

Academics as entrepreneurs

“Hell Yeah! Another ethics clearance form approved!”
(Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash)

The title of this post may lead you to believe it will be about how academics should act as entrepreneurs and approach pedagogic innovation with a start-up mentality. If so, this is not the post the you are looking for.

I have often sat in meetings in various parts of the university, or at conferences across different stages and roles in my career, where we have been tasked with developing business models, as a means of diversifying income. This might be more natural to academics in the US or in Business Schools where everything seems a short step away from a side hustle, but I’m here to tell you that academics are, generally, rubbish entrepreneurs. That’s why they’re academics. To paraphrase that line in the Social Network, if we were the entrepreneurs you were looking for, we would already be those entrepreneurs. Academics don’t become academics for the relentless pursuit of money.

Some caveats to this – I am aware that higher ed operates in a capitalist system and has to effectively function as a business. I’m not requesting special “money doesn’t apply here” rules, that boat sailed looooooong ago. And there are very smart people at HEIs who are good at taking knowledge, services, IP, artefacts that academics produce and turning them into successful businesses.

But academics aren’t really the droids you’re looking for here. And this comes back to specialisation – I’m pretty sure CEOs of Fortune 500 companies aren’t holding meetings about writing 4* REF papers. So why would we expect academics to be experts in their research, teaching, organisational and external administrative requirements and on top of all that, shit hot business people?

I should also add that academics need to note this too. They have a tendency to overestimate the value of their IP as I’ve often seen in debates around open practice (“if I make them open, someone might steal my Powerpoint slides from an obscure conference on medieval clog design and make millions!”). And like most people, when money enters the room, they suddenly feel liberated and they could achieve all the dreams they’ve been held back from for so long by an administration that doesn’t appreciate the value of clogs. Plus they’re tired and could do with extra income. I should also stress that there are plenty of academics (especially younger ones) who through necessity because of shitty employment conditions, do have successful side gigs, often in areas unrelated to their academic interest. They’re awesome (but also, I suspect, very tired and frustrated).

I have been guilty of all that I lay in this post, and been really quite bad at developing proper businesses related to academic activity. But I have been very good at generating income through teaching and research. That is, good academic, bad entrepreneur. I suspect I’m not alone in this and so let’s stop pretending universities are secretly housing a hundred Jeff Bezos (thankfully!) and are hosting a bunch of good academics who do academicy things.

It’s always about the biscuits

A cup of tea with two biscuits next to it
Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash

I was in a meeting the other day where we were considering some of the difficulties of recruiting student representatives to numerous panels. Someone commented that the shift online had removed one key element of appeal, which was a regular visit to the Milton Keynes campus. For students who aren’t inside the institution this provided more informal interactions with staff members, who they may have previously only come across in course materials. This kind of standing around the tea tray moment (I’m not calling it water cooler) perhaps then facilitated interaction in the more formal meetings that followed, which can otherwise seem quite intimidating. No matter how encouraging or welcoming the meeting is, it takes quite a lot for a student to speak up and perhaps contradict one of the people who have written a course they love, for instance.

This is one example of how in higher ed while we are grappling with the issues of creating effective online learning communities for students, we are not really applying the same effort or ingenuity to online working within an institution. As with the lecture, the response often seems to be ‘let’s go back to face to face, I liked that’. But we also know that many people prefer online meetings (and a counterpoint to the above example, some students who couldn’t come to Milton Keynes regularly, are now able to participate as representatives), and it better suits the demands of their lifestyle.

But we still largely have administrative structures that view the face to face campus meeting as the norm, even at the OU. As I’ve argued with the equivalent in teaching, the architecture does a lot of the organisation and labour for us – we interact around the room, we go to the cafe to socialise, we allow time inbetween meetings to walk across campus, we meet up for social activities, etc. Firstly we need to identify what the impacts of these kinds of interactions are on our working life, these might include factors such as greater social cohesion, increased sense of belonging, creation of informal networks, etc. Then we need to find online equivalents of realising these, and create administrative structures that facilitate this.

Let me explain through the medium of biscuits. Strangely, biscuits turn out to be a good way to monitor various aspects of an institution’s performance. For example, when we were going through the OU crisis, the ability to order biscuits for an internal meeting was cut (it had to be for large meetings only and they had to be over a certain time). At the same time, millions were being spent on consultants who knew very little about distance education. This revealed the trust and value placed in internal staff and knowledge – we’re cutting a small thing that matters to you, but spending excessively on people who aren’t you was the message I took from it as I munched sourly on my cookie.

That attitude may be in the past now, but for our new concern biscuits also offer an insight. I started with the example of informal interaction around the tea tray. This will (hopefully!) contain biscuits. If the constraints mentioned above are satisfied, then it is fairly easy to order biscuits to a meeting room. There is a process for this. Now, try ordering treats to be sent to everyone’s house for an informal morning chat. You might be able to do it with a special budget or a magic credit card, but the process is not as straightforward, and neither is the practice. But that informal chat with the biscuits as social object may have significant work related benefits (and just, you know, be nice).

Finding equivalents (without necessarily recreating the exact online version) of the types of interaction mentioned above and creating processes and structures that encourage them. Hobnob anyone?

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.


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.

Open programme exhibition

I’m the chair of the Open Programme at the OU – the multi-disciplinary degree where students can choose from over 250 modules to create their own degree (or PostGrad qualifications). As David Kernohan so handily illustrates in this WonkHe piece, we’re also the largest degree in the UK. You’re interested, right? You want to know more, don’t you? Well, we have you covered!

The open programme team, along with the lovely people at the OU archive team in the Library have created a digital exhibition, where you can explore various facts about the open programme and marvel at artefacts drawn from the archive detailing the history of multi and interdisciplinary teaching at the OU. My favourite is this 1975 article declaring the specialised degree to be a Brontosaurus. That may not have quite played out, but you could imagine a similar piece being written today about the London Interdisciplinary School. It seems that interdisciplinary degrees are always needed, always the new thing, and always just about to happen. The thing is, this is always true – they are needed to tackle the problems we face now more than ever.

15 Years of Edtechie


(It was nice of Taylor to write a song about 15 years of blogging)

I started this week writing about how I felt the need to STFU, and have blogged every day since, so erm, feel free to pretend I didn’t post this. It was the 15th anniversary of this blog back in May but I was too busy to mark it. I blogged the 10 year anniversary, so why not the 15th (it’s good enough for the Bava after all)?

I’m not sure I have more to say on the role of blogging and academia that hasn’t already been covered. But what I have been aware of, as that STFU post indicates, is my relationship with the blog changes. This should not be a surprise I guess, your career doesn’t stay the same, the way you relate to your house, or music, or friends changes over time, so why wouldn’t your online identity?

This is perhaps a long term blogs best function to an individual. It provides an anchor for online identity which will vary and adapt as you change and your priorities and interests shift. In this I think I have been lucky to get into blogging when it was still relatively new (in academic terms) and experimental. Sava Singh has talked about a form of temporal privilege those of us who were into Twitter, say, early had in that we experienced it being fun and friendly. Now that blogs and social media are much more a part of a respected and professionalised communications portfolio, there is a tendency to construct them around very specific messages and target them at defined audiences. Writing about random shit is a privilege in many ways, because although everyone can do that, I was lucky enough to build up a reasonable readership when it was the only approach. I don’t think this blog would get many readers if I was starting out today. So, thank you ed tech timing Gods.

But even with no readership the blog is probably my main (only?) outlet for some element of creativity in working life. Like many people I’ve found the daily Teams meeting and urgent task grind to be demoralising at times. I’m not an especially creative type, but an outlet beyond a well crafted email is needed sometimes to retain some sense of self. Playing with the Ed Tech Pitch generator this week took about 15 minutes but was a sufficient creativity boost to keep me feeling sane. It didn’t need to perform, meet deadlines, generate impact or be reviewed. It was just fun.

Being able to pivot (pirouette, shamble) around a central identity that you own provides a useful anchor as we all negotiate our relationship with the online world. It’s ok that it’s not the same thing that it was, and that it will be something else in the future. So thank you blog, after about 5 people and my dogs, you’re my best friend.