Listening to Uber

The future of education in the age of mobile computers and big data.

December 17, 2015

It is tempting to want higher ed to be more like Uber. The fact that this is a really bad idea does not stop us from thinking it. Uber is such a transportation leap from taxis that we yearn for a similar leap in higher ed.  We see what the combination of big data and ubiquitous mobile computing can do for transportation, and our minds start to race about applying these technologies to higher ed. We observe the taxi industry doing whatever it can to preserve its protections from competition, and we wonder if our legacy institutions are doing the same when it comes to education and credentialing.

What will be the Uber equivalent in higher education? My suspicion is that the big education shift that we will see over the next decade will be concentrated at the foundational / introductory level. This will take a bit of time to get right, but in a few years (maybe 3) we will discover that the combination of adaptive learning platforms and open online course platforms can produce educational results that are every bit as good as the typical introductory class. 

The reason that the ASU Global Freshman Academy is the biggest higher ed story of 2015 is because this experiment has the potential to change our higher education model. Rather than attend introductory classes in giant lecture halls, tomorrow’s students will be able to master foundational knowledge (and receive course credit) cheaply and online. This approach will free up resources for mentoring, tutoring and coaching of at-risk students, as resources can be concentrated on those that need the most help. Where all this will end up with is the ability to shorten time to graduation, lowering the costs of an undergraduate degree. The future of the undergraduate education will be less expensive and faster than today - at least for those students outside of a handful of highly selective institutions.

Where the dream of Uber breaks down in higher education is in everything that comes after the acquisition of basic skills and information. The job that we will need all of higher education to do tomorrow is to deliver the type of education that  liberal arts schools are already doing today.  Postsecondary education will need to focus on preparing graduates for a lifetime of learning, while concentrating less on the specific job skills that we think that the labor market needs today. These jobs will change. What will not change is the premium of people who can reason, work collaboratively, communicate clearly, and adapt to changing circumstances. The jobs that the robots will not take are the liberal arts jobs.

What are the higher ed lessons we should take away from Uber? The smartest path that our colleges and universities can take is to invest as much resources as possible in the type of learning that is not susceptible to commodification. The sort of education that is not susceptible to scale. A method of instruction that is not susceptible to being replaced by smart phones and big data. 

The real lesson from Uber is not that we should be investing in technologies for educational scale, but rather that we should be investing in educators. Uber is tellling us that we need to invest in a model where experienced and skilled faculty are given the autonomy, space, time, and support necessary to build a durable learning relationship with each of their students.  That sort of relational model of learning can’t be scaled and can’t be commoditized. An education that cannot be replaced by an algorithm or a platform. An education that is valuable precisely because it can only happen at a human scale. 

Any college or university that chooses not to invest in its educators will eventually find itself in a race to the bottom that it can never win.  A school will never be as efficient as a platform. Leave the commoditized aspects of postsecondary education to the low-cost players. Invest in a people-centric and relational model of teaching and learning.  Listen to the lessons of Uber.



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