Is It Possible To Embrace “Uber U”?

Offering another view of the higher education landscape.


August 28, 2016

I have been mulling over David Theo Goldberg’s recent essay: “Coming Soon To You: Uber U.” It is a story of decline, of the university in ruins, of a powerful vision of the liberal arts impaled on the stake of profits. “The immediate future for academe,” Goldberg writes in his penultimate paragraph, “is one of the growing robotification of basic skills and service delivery and smart algorithms autogenerating their own code. The pressures to downsize the human interface of learning, to limit faculty determination of what and how things are valuable to be learned, and to discount critical knowledge and thinking capacity in every sense of the term will only intensify.”

I am very sympathetic to such a perspective. Higher education is one of the only chances and places where students are helped to understand and confront how to be thoughtful and engaged citizens in a complex and contested pluralistic democracy. Helping students to develop such productive habits of mind and repertoires of action – what the developmental psychologist Marcia Baxter Magolda has eloquently called “self-authorship” – is a fraught undertaking and one that we in higher education take extremely seriously even as we struggle to understand how to do it well.

Goldberg is thus right to stand on the ramparts to push back the techno-zombie hordes that threaten our way of life. I’m on his side. Or at least I wish I could be.

The problem with Goldberg’s perspective and thus entire story is that it misinterprets the landscape and trends of higher education and therefore the best means by which to reclaim its future. Put bluntly, Goldberg has fallen into the fallacy of non-comparison by excluding the substantive and longstanding issues and problems in higher education. Such lack of comparison may allow for a powerful and abstract manifesto of resistance, but it avoids any semblance of real-world action.

The real story is not that the university has somehow been torn asunder and corrupted from its glorious path; it is that the university was never whole. One need only look at the abysmal retention and graduation rates of non-elite institutions, the massification of higher education and the unmet needs of the “new majority” of students, the minimal learning gains of a large proportion of our students, or the inability of our faculty to teach in a way that moves beyond low-level information transfer.

It thus drives me bonkers when Goldberg cites the complaint of a physicist that “the conceptual thinking key to advancing knowledge in the field and once central to learning physics has increasingly disappeared.” I want to give him a dope slap and scream at the top of my lungs asking him what planet he lives on. Undergraduate physics education is actually a perfect example of my point, not his: the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman has spent close to two decades urging his colleagues to “transform physics education” from “mindless memorization to understanding and appreciation”; the National Research Council has urged the field to teach better, as “[I]ntroductory physics has been cast as a subject that only a tiny elite could truly master… the physics community [must] take a close look at the issues related to undergraduate physics education and pursue paths that can lead to improved student understanding of physics, reasoning skills, and attitudes toward physics.”

The real story is thus exactly how do we actually support a powerful model of teaching and learning even as we deal with the adjunctification of higher education, the disinvestment from public education, the fiscal imperatives of a profit-seeking marketplace, and the splintering and unbundling of just about every function of faculty work and institutional credentialing.

So it is here where we come to “Uber U.”

Goldberg uses this analogy as the intended coup de grâce for what we need to resist: “Uber has announced its plan to develop and purchase driverless cars, so it is now joining the roboticizing of the workforce. In higher education, we are increasingly facing the distinct possibility of a faceless future, teacherless courses, online everything. We should confront this intensifying prospect of Uber U with eyes wide-open, counter clickers firmly in hand.”

And so I say, bring it on!

My goal is, sure, to be provocative. But it is also meant to help us realize that there is no unsullied way forward and that some technologies, if embraced thoughtfully and carefully, can actually help guide us to a better future.

What Uber and many other companies are rushing towards is what is known as autonomous vehicles; these “self-driving cars” have received lots of unwarranted attention recently as both Tesla and Google have had several accidents and one death resulting from these cars. This is, of course, bad. Until we realize the context.

According to the US Department of Transportation (US DoT), more than thirty-two thousand people were killed and over two million injured from auto accidents in 2014. According to a wide variety of research, such accidents were almost all (more than ninety percent) due to “human error” (e.g. alcohol impairment, distraction and inattention) and cost over two hundred billion to the American economy. Worldwide, more than three thousand people a day die from auto accidents.

These are sobering numbers and realities. So yes, Uber may indeed be a part of the “roboticizing of the workforce.” But even by extremely conservative US DoT estimates, the autonomous vehicle technology and safety features that Uber and many others are developing – such as blind spot and forward collision warnings and vehicle-to-vehicle communication – “will prevent 400,000 to 600,000 crashes, 190,000 to 270,000 injuries and save 780 to 1,080 lives each year…[as well as] prevent or reduce the severity of up to 80 percent of non-alcohol-related crashes.” And while some of the fanfare is surely hyperbolic, one journalistic review of the research proclaims that such technologies “could be the great public-health achievement of the 21st century.”

No analogies are perfect and what we do in higher education is, I would argue, far more complex than creating autonomous vehicles. But if the technology behind self-driving cars can save an immense number of lives and minimize millions of preventable accidents, then it seems foolish to resist such technological advancements for the so-called purity of the driving experience. I would much rather figure out what we in higher education can do well and accept that much of the narrative of what we do as faculty may not be as relevant in this “age of disruption.”

I am not a machine; nor, I hope, will I be replaced by one. Rather, I accept that technology will indeed supplement, complement, and replace certain features of my taken-for-granted way of being in the world, whether that means when I am driving a car or lecturing to one hundred students. That is inevitable in our frenetic world. What is not inevitable is how we choose to be a part of such changes. 

Dan Butin, PhD is Professor of Education, School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College.


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