edtech,  higher ed

The non-Uberization of education


I have tried to avoid writing a piece about Uber, because, well I just lost the will when I thought about it. There is a very strange tendency in technology writing to take any successful business and view it as a universal acid. All of the commentators and tech media go on an obsessive hunt across every sector: THIS MUST APPLY EVERYWHERE!! is the mantra. So we get “Uber for [insert sector of your choice]” pieces everywhere. I guess they’re easy to write, and people seem to like reading them. I think they appeal to the “get on the bus” fear argument I mentioned in the previous post.

Inevitably there have been “Uber for education” pieces – Nassim Taleb says we will bypass institutions and go straight to instructors (because people approaching a world famous expert is exactly the same thing as a nervous, financially poor learner getting started on a subject who doesn’t know how to proceed, of course); the inevitable start-up (InstaEDU) which gets bonus points for almost literally stating the get on the bus argument (“Are you the one still hailing a cab or are you calling an Uber?”); rehashing the unbundling education argument; and on and on.

The basic idea is that universities will be made redundant (for about the fourth time since 2010) because individual learners will go direct to a marketplace of private educators. What people rarely write is why a sector isn’t like Uber. That’s probably because no-one wants to hear this, and anyone foolish enough to write such stuff would have to be some kind of curmudgeon who was like, not with it, Grandad. Well, hello there. So here is my attempt at such a post.

It’s important to understand the key elements of the Uber offering:

  • A taxi ride is a brief interaction. It helps if I like the person, but it’s over in 15 minutes, so I don’t have to worry too much about investment in it.
  • A taxi ride may vary in some local colour in terms of car, environment etc but it’s essentially the same product everyday and anywhere in the world.
  • It is something that a lot of people possess the equipment for (a car) and the capability (driving)
  • I know what I want from it (to get to my 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 (waving down a cab)

Hardly any of those conditions apply to education, which has the following characteristics:

  • It requires a long time frame (certainly longer than 15 minutes usually) to gain the required outcome.
  • It is very diverse, both geographically and by discipline, so any model would require such diversity and thus be difficult to use, compared with the simplicity of Uber
  • While there are a lot 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 very difficult.
  • Meno’s paradox goes something like: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. 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 you need to know. So it is very difficult to bypass institutions that are constructed to help you overcome this very problem. (Incidentally, Meno’s paradox undermines nearly all ed tech startups which rely on the autodidact model, but no-one’s ever told them)
  • Learning is often a social activity that is undertaken with a cohort of people with similar interests, goals, etc
  • Education is already engaging with online learning and mobile delivery, so it’s not obvious it is solving a problem

I think there will be aspects of (really, really for want of a better phrase) Uberization of education. Indeed they’re already here, and are just part of the changing approach to workforce. 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. Writing a review, conducting interviews, etc – the overheads of a university add too much to a bid compared to someone working out of a home office. Similarly the online tutoring model which seems to be such a revelation to many, is already underway. I think this will expand, particularly in combination with OERs and MOOCs. But I suspect it will be largely in conjunction with higher education, not in competition to it.

The appeal of apps and businesses like Uber is their simplicity. It’s not impossible to address all of the reservations I’ve set out above in some Uberized fashion, but it would end up being a complex, unwieldy affair that would defeat the very object of its existence. And that is the biggest difference between Uber and education – getting a taxi is simple, getting 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.


  • Linda Aragoni

    Thanks for your long and thoughtful analysis of some topics that I’ve been thinking about for months.

    I agree with your premise that a Uber-like replacement for the education system is highly unlikely. I wonder, however, if some aspects of “Uberfication” that are already happening in education might not transform the education system by breaking it up.

    Certainly, as you say, licenses to offer approved credits are not easy to acquire. But what happens when the licensed credentials don’t carry value any more? If students can get better paying, more interesting work more quickly at less expense by taking courses through Udemy or Code Academy, that could play havoc with traditional higher education programs. Further suppose K-12 schools figured out a way to pull those online programs into their classrooms and give credit for them. That would be a game changer.

    Teacher preparation will not be disrupted any time soon—anything run by governments is at least a quarter century behind—but even there for-profit, nongovernmental agencies are working hard to carve out a new market. They will probably not pull preservice teachers, but they’ll pull in-service teachers by being quick to keep up with changes. Pearson is doing a new program aimed at higher education, which I suspect is motivated by a desire to market its “open” resources. http://www.ecampusnews.com/top-news/professional-development-webinars-038/

    The other factor that I think is even potentially more disruptive is the devaluation of education generally. I’m not talking just about having letters after your name. (Although I don’t think Donald Trump’s followers think less of him for not having letters after his name.) I’m thinking more about the devaluation of knowledge and skills that have come as technology enables “anybody” to put up a website, film a video, or publish a book. My blog post earlier this week referred to one way that trend is making itself felt among website designers. https://icanteachwriting.wordpress.com/2016/02/26/what-is-the-world-coming-to/

  • edifiedlistener

    There are so many helpful thoughts here. And I also appreciate Linda’s push back. You get to the crux of the argument with this: “– getting a taxi is simple, getting an education is complex.” There are many things that we can do better and differently in education because of and with tech but replacing whole institutions is not necessarily the solution. Especially when the actual questions are still wide open and ill defined.

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