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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Higher Ed Innovation Already Happened

It just wasn't the good kind. You can stop looking for the "Uber for education."

August 11, 2019

Uber lost more than $5 billion last quarter.

Uber lost more than $5 billion last quarter, and I’ve been thinking about innovation and also cynicism thanks to two posts from last week by fellow Inside Higher Ed bloggers Steven Mintz and Matt Reed.

Mintz addressed the question of why it seems so difficult to “innovate” in higher ed by pointing out that lots of innovation has happened and is happening. Those who say that higher ed isn’t innovating are mostly looking in specific areas -- such as tuition costs -- and declaring higher ed to be an innovation-free zone, which is not entirely accurate.

Reed discusses the “two flavors of cynicism,” one “stylistic,” the other rooted in motives often used to quash discussion of progress or change by calling bullshit on the whole enterprise, suggesting nothing we can do matters, so why bother trying.

I’m thinking about innovation and cynicism in the context of Uber losing $5 billion last quarter. I know I am not imagining that some folks have been urging us to find an “Uber for education,” because if I Google “Uber for education,” you will find a number of people who are longing openly for such an event.

If “Uber for education” is our future, I’m going to be awfully tempted to become a cynic of Reed’s second kind, because seriously, WTF? If our future of education is premised on such shallow propositions, I’m willing to be the guy who calls bullshit on the whole enterprise.

To be fair, Uber’s massive loss is made more massive by some kind of post-IPO machinations in which you have to account for massive transfers of paper wealth to employees. Nonetheless, even when all this is taken into account, Uber lost $656 million.

To Wall Street, this is apparently “no big whoop,” never mind that there is not a single profitable ride-sharing app in the entire world. Lyft lost a mere $197 million in the same quarter, but as Andrew J. Hawkins comments at The Verge, venture capital will continue to prop up these companies “as long as the capital markets remains confident in the companies’ predictions about the future,” a prediction that has Uber ultimately capturing “15 percent of all global activity.”

I guess you have to be smarter than me to believe such a thing is possible. Maybe if you squint? Even if it is possible, though, shouldn’t we be asking if it is desirable, if it is in fact, innovative in the positive sense?

Hawkins catalogs the externalities that the rise in ride sharing has imposed on the rest of us -- increased traffic in cities and the resulting pollution, or workers who labor long hours for little pay and no security. This is why municipalities are acting to increase regulation on these companies, arresting their growth or addressing the labor practices, as in California moving toward classifying ride-share drivers as “full-fledged employees.”

Uber is not so innovative if we’re concerned about pollution or the living wage.

I’m trying to imagine what an Uber for education looks like in light of the full context of what Uber means. People point to the innovation of these apps (or their kin such as AirBnB) making use of unused capacity, the car that mostly sits in your driveway or that empty spare bedroom. The reality is that most educators are working beyond their capacity, and then they’re driving Uber at night because their wage as a teacher or adjunct college instructor isn’t sufficient to live on.

Where is the innovation that will allow teachers to not need a second job during the school year?

One of my personal pet peeves is the idea that innovation is somehow synonymous with positive overall progress. The innovative aspects of Uber and AirBnB -- making use of unused capacity -- have come coupled with (let’s face it, foreseeable) negative consequences. I’ve already mentioned Uber’s effect of putting more cars on the road and pollution in the air, but let’s also note AirBnB’s negative effect on affordable housing. Why rent that apartment for $1,500 a month when you can get $200 a night?

Mintz makes an interesting observation when he notes that while the cost of tuition has not declined as the innovation-focused would wish, “In fact, institutions did stabilize instructional spending. But very unfortunately the solution was to rely, more and more, on non-tenure-track instructors.”

Here’s what I’m thinking: What if the most important educational innovation -- in the Uber sense -- already happened: An adjunctified labor force?

What if we shouldn’t be looking for the “Uber for education” because education has already been Ubered.

Think about it: from a bottom-line perspective, the true innovation is figuring out how to get the labor completed without having to pay people either the wage or benefits we normally associate with employment. Higher ed beat Uber to the punch by quite a bit.

We found out that things we thought were necessary for the work of the academy -- security, academic freedom, continuity -- really aren’t. No one lost accreditation. Institutions have not shut down because of too much reliance on adjunct labor. As Mintz notes, it’s really the opposite. The books could never have been balanced without it. What would have happened had adjunct labor not allowed for such “innovation” in higher ed?

While I am one of those bad cynics when it comes to innovation, I am a big believer in progress. I’ve just published two books that outline paths for what I think it forward progress in the teaching of writing. Incidentally, neither of them relies on anything truly innovative when it comes to our approach to teaching.

They do require a commitment to certain values, however. I’d like to have more conversations at that level, but I must admit, I’ve become a bit cynical as to the likelihood of that ever happening.


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