Can we Uber-ize education?

Uber for X is all the rage. But can (and should) we try to apply Uber’s model to one of the world’s most stagnant institutions?

Uber

10 seconds. Maybe a little longer if you mistype your password.

That’s how long it takes to call an Uber. Through the app, you can see your driver’s name and rating; you can see the make and model of the car and track its approach; and you can even call if one of you gets lost. After the ride, payment is handled automatically and you can leave a review that helps decide whether the driver gets to continue working with Uber. All this at a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already used Uber. Since 2009, Uber has grown into a $50B behemoth that offers its services in 300 cities in 57 countries.

Given its tremendous valuation, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs and investors alike have rushed to support Uber-like models in other industries. Need an on-demand dog walker? Meet Wag. How about a mover? Try Lugg. Left your plane at home? There’s even an Uber for private jets.

UberX

For now, many of the above services are only relevant for narrow segments of the population. Sorry, Glamsquad, but the average American doesn’t need on-demand hair styling. But could an “Uber for X” startup work in a different type of business, perhaps one that could affect nearly every individual in the world?

As an education entrepreneur, I’m excited about the potential impact that Uber-like services (often labeled “on-demand mobile services” or ODMS) can have on the way we learn, from early childhood education to professional development.

 

How education has already changed

First, some context.

classchanged

Don’t listen to the naysayers – education certainly has changed over the last century. In the 1950s, US classrooms focused almost exclusively on rote memorization. By the 1970s, they had begun flirting with the Open Classroom model. By the 2000s, schools were beginning to emphasize softer skills like the 4C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Policies like No Child Left Behind have encouraged more standardized testing, and things like cursive, arts, and recess are mostly absent in today’s schools. Charter schools have transformed the public school landscape by allowing administrators to adapt organization, culture, and curricula to community needs. From a technology standpoint, educators are increasingly using online video libraries like Khan Academy to “flip the classroom” and software like Google Classroom to promote collaboration. Interactive whiteboards have replaced chalkboards in over 2.8 million K-12 classrooms globally. From a pedagogy perspective, 46 states have adopted national Common Core standards which emphasize a quicker path to literacy and deeper mathematical understanding.

Despite progress, in other ways education has been slower to adopt changes seen in other industries. Students don’t have individual learner profiles which follow them around from school to school and capture their strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences (like electronic medical records in healthcare). We don’t really have a great sense of how to collect, analyze, and interpret student data (like we do for consumer data in e-commerce). Most learning management systems don’t have robust predictive algorithms to truly personalize learning (like the ones powering Netflix or Amazon’s recommendation engine).

So while education has changed somewhat, the pace of this change is remarkably slow compared to other sectors. Can we change education as swiftly and extensively as Uber is changing the taxi industry?

To figure this out, let’s:

  1. Break down Uber into its component parts
  2. Imagine what these components would look like when applied to education
  3. Identify education-specific challenges and way to overcome them

 

Component 1 – Two-sided platform which matches latent supply with unmet demand

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A two-sided platform in education would connect educators who have excess capacity, with students who have unmet demand. Here, educators aren’t teachers in the traditional sense. Uber educators are anyone with the ability to help others learn a specific skillset. They may themselves be experts in the particular area they are teaching, or they may simply know how to help others become expertsin that area.

This looser definition of a teacher is relevant because the US is facing a nationwide teacher shortage, so latent supply for an educational Uber would need to come from other professions (e.g., engineers, writers, musicians). For starters, we could focus on the areas of education with the greatest supply/demand mismatch. Given the increased emphasis on STEM in schools and the increasing number of workers moving to the tech industry, matching experienced  tech professionals with students interested in technology could be one option.

Challenges:

Non-traditional teachers may not know how to teach – You could be the world’s foremost biologist, but that doesn’t necessarily make you more qualified to teach middle school biology. Teaching requires more than just subject knowledge – it requires an ability to connect with students, an understanding of pedagogy, and unbelievable patience, among other skills. Any two-sided platform in education needs to either properly train the supply side in effective teaching methods, or pair non-teachers with teachers to give students a solution that combines content expertise with teaching expertise.

Unions would fight back – Teacher unions are notoriously resistant to outside influences in the education system, which they fear could erode their power. And given teachers’ immense political clout, an Uber-like business in education would be prudent to figure out how to deal with unions before they are overburdened with regulations that stymie its growth. It could potentially position itself as a supplement, not competitor, to teachers, or perhaps employ the Uber approach of lobbying for regulations that fight against incumbents.

 

Component 2 – On-demand, mobile service

This actually has a few sub-components, so let’s examine each individually.

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  1. Exactly what you need – Just like Uber gets you from point A to point B and does little else, an Uber for education should deliver exactly the educational content you need in bite-sized chunks. The best way to do this is to tie content to action-oriented outcomes. In other words, you want to learn how to do X? Let’s match you with someone who can teach you how to X. No more, no less.
  2. When you need it – In order for Uber to match every rider with a driver within minutes of opening the app, and to keep drivers close to full utilization, it needs to carefully connect supply to demand and ensure neither side outgrows the other. Students find that instruction is most effective when it is delivered when they need it most. Perhaps you can expand the capacity of individual educators by making it easier for them to serve multiple students at the same time, without sacrificing quality. And if we assume the teacher-student interactions can take place online, a supply of teachers located across multiple time zones can support 24/7 coverage.
  3. Where and how you need it – True on-demand learning means that students are taught wherever they are most comfortable, whether that’s at the library, in the classroom, or from home. They also need to be able to choose from multiple teaching styles (e.g., video lectures, problem sets, group projects) in order to learn in a way that best suits them. A service could either match specific teaching styles (e.g., expert video lectures) with specific learning preferences (e.g., student wants watch videos on the subway), or make it easy for an educator to convert a lesson into multiple formats.

Challenge:

Students may not be able to outline specific learning needs – What if a student is falling behind in algebra and wants general math help, instead of help with a specific algebra problem? Well just like you wouldn’t order an Uber without having a single, imminent destination in mind, Uber for education may not be right for students who can’t modularize their needs. Any viable service would most likely need to focus on specific, manageable chunks of education, either in the form of specific homework questions, learning objectives, or even tasks at hand (i.e., professional development). If students can’t break their needs up into chunks themselves, the service should be able to help.

 

Component 3 – High-quality, community-rated suppliers

Just like with Uber drivers, any teacher on the platform should be continuously rated and dismissed if their rating falls below a predetermined threshold.

rating

Challenges:

It’s difficult for a student to gauge a teacher’s quality –It is arguably easier to assess the quality of an Uber experience than an educational experience, partly because preferred learning styles and speeds vary vastly among individuals. Instead of giving a rating on a single dimension, an educational Uber could ask for teacher ratings on multiple dimensions like content knowledge, patience, enthusiasm, etc., like AirBnB does by asking guests to rate accuracy, cleanliness, location, etc. The service could also periodically match teachers with “master teachers” and have them be rated more formally, much like they would be rated by an observer in a school.

Digital lessons aren’t as effective as in-person sessions– As anyone who has taken an online course can confirm, learning over your computer or phone isn’t always as engaging, and thus less effective, than learning in an actual classroom. An Uber-like service can mitigate this decrease in quality by focusing on subjects which can be augmented with technology, not ones where technology is just a medium for the interaction. For example, a physics teacher can easily send over simulations to students to help them understand tough concepts, or a programming teacher can do a quick code review with any number of digital tools – activities which wouldn’t be as seamless in-person.

 

Component 4 – Low cost

Uber keeps its prices to consumers low by paying drivers as contractors, not employees, circumventing a taxi monopoly which requires taxicabs to own highly-priced medallions, and using scalable technology in place of overhead like a central dispatcher.

An Uber in education may to keep costs low by having younger, more inexperienced employees (e.g., college students) work as teachers, or by hiring lower-cost teachers from overseas like some online tutoring services do.

 

Maybe we can Uber-ize education, but should we?

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In summary, there is definitely opportunity in creating low-cost, on-demand learning experiences, especially in disciplines where there is a growing demand for teachers and flexible supply (e.g., technology professionals can  supplement the  learn-to-code movement).

However, it is important to consider the effect such a disruption would have on the broader education system. Many students would not benefit from an educational Uber, from reasons ranging from being unable to pay for a premium educational service, to not being engaged by a digital teacher (and perhaps no in-person teachers are nearby).  As a result, the service may miss the students who need it the most, entrenching inequity issues we have been fighting for decades. And just like the success of Uber may leave the lowest-quality drivers left in the traditional taxi industry, we should worry if on-demand education gives wealthier students a monopoly on the best teachers.

Furthermore, the analysis above assumes that the goal of education is to learn a specific, well-defined skill. That premise is itself controversial. When Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin tried replacing the words “search for truth” with “meet the state’s workforce needs” in the state code for universities, it was met with backlash from academics and educators alike. They argue that an education should provide a sense of social responsibility, encourage discovery, and instill wonderment about the world. Any service that claims to educate should serve this dual purpose of preparing students for work and life.

 

What next?

Several well-positioned players are already moving into on-demand education. Online course provider Udacity has recently pivoted from offering full-scale university courses to bite-sized “nanodegrees” which are proctored by their global network of 300 code reviewers. They claim their best code reviewer can earn more than 8x the monthly salary of a part-time teacher in the US. Startups like MathCrunch provide Uber-like math tutoring services at a fraction of the cost of incumbent Tutor.com. Maybe even Uber, who partnered with Levo League in early 2015 to offer brief “mentoring rides” with influential businesswomen, can themselves make a play in the market.

As for myself, I’m excited about exploring whether an “Uber for Education” has any merit given the immense social value it could create. If you have thoughts on the topic, please share them below!

 

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Image sources:

https://mises.org/blog/how-uber-threatens-our-way-life

https://medium.com/@cschultz/labor-goes-independent-cfc60f5e10e9

http://www.connectsafely.org/lets-not-use-21st-century-technology-with-19th-century-pedagogy/

http://studentsforliberty.org/blog/2015/07/30/the-sharing-economy-creates-growth-so-let-it/

http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-sections/10958/the-hidden-cost-of-the-on-demand-economy/

http://www.businessinsider.com/leaked-charts-show-how-ubers-driver-rating-system-works-2015-2?r=UK&IR=T

http://www.kumulos.com/2012/10/18/questions-app-developers-should-ask-themselves-backend-as-a-service/

By: Vibin Kundukulam


4 Comments

  1. Andrew Fong

    There is definitely a demand and available supply for on demand education. I think most humans innately want to learn and consume information. In reflecting on my lifetime, I've gone from using encyclopedias to google to youtube to learn about history, cooking, and even how to tie a tie.
    I think the challenge is creating a reliable brand that "students" can go to for all things education. I believe a rating system, such as the ones used by Uber and AirBnB, would eliminate some of the friction for students knowing they are efficiently spending their time and money to learn from a reliable teacher. For the supply side teachers, I think the key is providing volume and an easy to navigate platform for teaching/communication.

  2. Adam Stanek

    Vibin, you've provided a very thoughtful analysis of Uber's applicability to education, and I think you've got a powerful idea here! There is unquestionably an unmet demand from youth around the globe who need access to quality education. I can only imagine how grateful a child in Nepal or Uganda would be to be able to learn how to code, step by step, via a mobile phone. The question really is, can they afford to access these content experts, both from the price of the technology (mobile phone) and the price per transaction? I'm concerned that this would be hard to democratize. However, in response to the question of whether we should or shouldn't Uberize education, I think thats a question to be answered by the market. If you create the platform and modularized, on-demand education supplants traditional education the way Uber is disrupting the taxi industry, perhaps that is proof that we were thinking about education the wrong way all along. But, if you're unable to mobilize the platform, then perhaps there really is something to the chalkboard, textbook, and good old fashion learning.

  3. Will Moore

    Vibin,

    I really like the movement you have brought to light here of trying to improve education in so many places in the world where the learning system is similar or worse than it is in the U.S. I think groups like Khan Academy and Udacity and other programs like MIT’s OpenCourseware system as well as other companies who are trying to Uber-ize education are making an amazing difference by improving ease of access and lesson quality for those who use it. My comments on different sections of your blog post are below:

    Component 1 – Two-sided platform which matches latent supply with unmet demand

    Although these online platforms are having great effects as supplemental tools for post-high school education, I think one of the most important components of any K-12 education system that none of the Uber-like platforms have been able to solve yet is that of accreditation. If online education is ever to replace classroom teaching by state-certified teachers, it will have to prove that the Uber teachers are qualified to teach the students to the same standard and with the same lesson plans that certified teachers would. This is important obviously so that when a student enters the workforce, employers can have a relatively straightforward way to judge whether an employee has attained a certain base level of knowledge and skills that will enable them to do the job. Without accredited teachers and a way to verify that all the standard learning objectives are being met, Uber teachers will only be a supplemental resource. If an online education platform seeks to only hire certified teachers or seeks to get additional teachers certified itself, then there will either be a shortage of teachers who use the platform or the cost will be too prohibitive for the business model to succeed. If the cost challenge is to be overcome, then the platform will have to reach scale – in other words one teacher would have to teach multiple students. If students are going to be at their home computers to learn from an online teacher but the teacher is teaching a group and not giving one-on-one tutoring, then there will be problems with students not paying attention or not staying in front of the screen. If you are going to put all the students in one room so you can control them leaving during the lesson (say at a community center for example), then you would have to hire a watchperson to keep the classroom in order and this would eat up the intended cost savings of having teachers teach online.

    Component 2 – On-demand, mobile service

    Also if the platform manages to ensure that the student understands the subject matter in each lesson, it still has to have a way to control the sequence in which the student learns different parts of the curriculum, so that the student does not skip the lower level learnings in some complementary subjects and struggle with the higher level learnings in other subjects as a result (10th grade science draws on lessons from 8th grade math, for example). This may be managed easily by not providing access to higher lessons until a student has completed baser lessons, but then you have to rely on students to pace themselves through all subjects with a reasonable speed, which is extremely difficult without the accountability provided by peer pressure and a human teacher in a traditional classroom.

    Component 3 – High-quality, community-rated suppliers

    If relying on student ratings of teachers instead of teacher certification, how would students even know how to rate the teachers on the best merits? Students would end up rating teachers only on non-teaching merits like helpfulness and attitude, at the risk of not providing any feedback on the quality of knowledge the teacher passed on to him or her. The periodic reviews by master teachers would help, but this would also greatly limit the supply of teaching talent that the platform would hope to match with the unmet demand by constraining the speed at which good enough teachers can be added to the platform’s staff.

    Component 4 – Low cost

    Another problem that you mentioned is motivation – how to get the students who are least likely to pass to actually take advantage of online materials/teachers even if these resources are relatively cheap and very easy to access. Currently most of the users of online education platforms are students who are already self-motivated and are going the extra distance to seek extra resources to add to their in-classroom learning – and these students are the ones who were already likely to perform well in academics even without access to online materials. In other words, without solving the motivation problem, Uberizing education may actually increase the performance gap between the top students and the students least likely to pass their classes. Maybe adding to the public education curriculum some basic parenting training on how to motivate each student’s future children to learn would start the long march effort needed to solve the motivation issue, and then Uberizing education could add the immense social value and have the world-changing impact we all want to see.

    • Vibin Kundukulam

      Thanks for your detailed thoughts, Will! Just a few comments in response – we should definitely chat in person:

      Accredited teachers – Part of the assumption is that we need accredited teachers to get accreditation for the student's learning. I don't think that's necessarily the case – students can take the same standardized tests/GED regardless of how they were taught, just as if they had been homeschooled. It's also definitely not the case that accreditation means that a teacher is better – especially in the US where the standards for becoming a teacher are much lower than in other countries. I also think there is a trend away from formal accreditation of degrees in general – startups like Credly offer microcredentials for learning that takes place outside the traditional classroom, and many of the players you mentioned (e.g., Udacity) also offer nano-degrees.

      Rating – This is a great point, and something any student-led rating system in education faces. We may need to supplement community-led ratings with actual student outcomes (e.g., did students who worked with xx teacher score higher on an assessment?).

      Motivation – Again, absolutely right this is a huge issue (with educational technology tools in general). Perhaps we could pilot this product with risking increasing the performance gap between top students and students least likely to pass, by targeting students who *are* motivated but *lack resources*. From my experience teaching, a lot of poorly-performing students are actually incredibly motivated but don't have access to great study materials or teachers – this is especially true in many inner-city schools in the US, and in many schools in developing nations.