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Card Index: Uberisation of Education

Digital platforms for fast delivery of knowledge: pros and cons

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Education is in the process of being partly reformatted into an on-demand service, with digital platforms quickly and efficiently matching teachers to students. This can make education more personalised and accessible and open up new professional development and money-making opportunities for teachers. But is an Uber-like model really good for education? The following discussion of uberisation in education is based on a paper by philosopher Timur Khusyainov, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the HSE Campus in Nizhny Novgorod.

What is uberisation of education?

The uberisation of education refers to the use of digital platforms for connecting students to teachers directly, without intermediaries. The term 'uberisation' stems from the name of the American company Uber Technologies (or Uber) which pioneered technology for direct connection between customers and service providers. The company produced a mobile application for ordering taxis and food deliveries.

When applied to education, uberisation uses technology to select a teacher for a particular student based on the latter's needs and abilities. This Uber-like model supports personalised leaning and partly transforms education into an on-demand service capable of adapting to its consumers.

Is it like car sharing or Airbnb?

Indeed, similar services which are part of the platform economy and the sharing economy are established in the hospitality industry, such as Airbnb, a platform that enables travellers to rent a place to stay from property owners worldwide. Other examples include car sharing and ride sharing systems, such as Delimobil, BlaBlaCar, BelkaCar, and more. 'I don't want to own a car but would like to use a convenient and safe transportation service' is the rationale behind such business models.

There are also super-apps, such as Yandex Go, a mobile application that provides multiple services, including taxi-hailing, car-sharing, food and groceries delivery, e-scooter rental, etc. Today, we can buy books, multimedia products, and financial services with just one click; it is therefore unsurprising that the Uber model has been extended to education.

How are digital networks and platform economy related?

This is precisely what uberisation is about: creating digital platforms connecting consumers with relevant services. This development has been described as a transition to 'crowd-based capitalism' , characterised by the sharing economy and collaborative consumption models.

Uberisation is directly related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0 resulting from the development and integration of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and neural networks.

Uberisation is often compared to the breakthrough made by American industrialist and inventor Henry Ford who pioneered the assembly line technique for mass production of automobiles, thus making the industry highly efficient. The same can be said about digital platforms like Uber, which allow for faster, cheaper and better interaction between service providers and consumers.

Compared to traditional business, such peer-to-peer models cut transaction costs significantly. The number of connections separating users from providers is minimised, and clients receive highly personalised services. Thus, uberisation has many advantages in various areas, and education is no exception.

How can students benefit from the uberisation of education?

First, they can benefit from better, faster and cheaper access to education, which is a persistent challenge worldwide. According to the Global Education Monitoring Report released by UNESCO in the autumn of 2017, a total of 264 million children worldwide do not have access to education due to a lack of essential conditions and resources, and at least 600 million more have access to education but do not attend school. This is one of the reasons why, in 2018, the World Bank warned about a learning crisis faced by the world. As a response to these challenges, online learning platforms emerged, some of them in higher education, facilitating the delivery of knowledge in various fields.

Second, the uberisation of education means that a student can learn precisely what they need and choose when and how to access the service in the same way as when ordering a car ride.

Third, an uberised platform sets high standards for teachers to deliver quality learning. On the flip side, socialisation is not an option — and perhaps has never been an objective — in platform-based education. Unlike conventional schools and universities, digital learning platforms do not support live discussions or social networking with peers.

Could you give examples of Russian and international uberised educational platforms?

Skyeng, a Russian company that runs a personalised English teaching platform is well on its way to uberisation; it allows students to choose a teacher based on language proficiency, learning goals, etc. Even further ahead was the American company Chegg Tutors, also known as InstaEDU, discontinued in early 2021. The service matched students seeking help with online tutors virtually 24/7, effectively implementing an Uber-like education on demand (EOD) model.

Does 'uberised' education always involve distance learning, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs)?

MOOCs are an independent format, perhaps worth being examined separately. As for 'uberised' learning, it can take place online or in person, based on agreement between the teacher and the student. It would be wrong to think of uberisation as a subtype of distance learning.

What does uberisation mean for teachers?

It can radically change the work of school and university teachers and contribute to digital transformation in education. Uber-like platforms can help build an extensive database of practitioners, each marketing their skills and setting their price. They do not need to look for customers, because the platform does it for them.

This model can open up creative opportunities for teachers to re-fashion their pedagogical and operating practices. There are some other potential effects of uberisation in education:

 no longer perceived as bearers of sacred knowledge or content generators, teachers would become consultants helping the student learn a subject;

 learners would make their choice of teacher based primarily on other students’ reviews, rather than on the teacher’s academic degrees or on favourable opinions from other teachers;

 parts of the teaching and learning process would be easier to automate.

What could be the impact of uberisation on higher education?

A new philosophy of higher education has been emerging, in particular regarding the way universities operate. According to some philosophers, a new university of expertise will emerge on the ruins of the older university models — such as the Humboldtian model or the entrepreneurial model where a university is operated as a business — and will integrate their best aspects.

An Interesting new trend is how easy it is for teachers and educators to reach out to larger audiences by creating online courses, webinars and even schools. New educational resources have emerged in a variety of subjects, including 'extra knowledge'. Examples include Postnauka, projects offered by online universities, and some others.

Is there such a thing as 'extra knowledge'?

By this, people usually mean knowledge and skills which may be non-essential for their professional or everyday life, but good for general erudition. For example, few people really need to know how the Universe works but many find it interesting.

The recent boom in popular science websites and books have encouraged people's love of learning, and even the numerous MOOC platforms fall short of meeting demand. Each of the courses currently available has a specific focus, but their audiences consist of individual learners whose interests and needs may vary.

Personalised education is more flexible. Back in 2015, American economist and author of The Black Swan bestseller, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, suggested that with the onset of uberised education, students would go to a specific teacher, bypassing the university. The students and the teachers would thus be matched.

Could uberisation lead to deinstitutionalisation of education?

Yes, to a certain extent. Under the Uber-like model, potential customers choose an educational resource or an individual teacher based on the latter’s ranking by students. Those with a low ranking may even be removed from the platform. On the other hand, a teacher can improve their chances of being in demand by making expert appearances in various media, blogging or vlogging regularly.

Is the teacher expected to be reachable at all times? This must be tough!

Theoretically, a student can reach their teacher even when the latter is busy with other things or enjoying their leisure time. The teacher, in turn, can refuse the contact at their own risk and thus forego the opportunity to earn. Teachers always have the right to disconnect but are unlikely to use it too often.

What about teacher autonomy and earnings?

Their autonomy is likely to decline. Chasing a high ranking can affect both the teacher's conduct and the student's learning outcomes, e.g. when in-depth mastery of a subject is replaced by training in solving typical problems.

As for earnings, although the original idea was to help teachers make more money, this is not always the case, and provider drop-out rates are relatively high. Unlike giving taxi rides which can be done from time to time, being a teacher requires regular interaction with the student, otherwise the learning outcomes can suffer.

Robotisation of teaching seems to be a major public scare: how real is it?

AI is indeed likely to make its way into education where it could generate images and videos on demand, prepare answers to queries and assess learner performance on specific assignments. At some point in the future, there could be an 'inanimate professor', an avatar in the metaverse, using AI and a global knowledge base.

What is the outlook for the uberisation of education?

There are a few possible scenarios. Teachers may be partly replaced by AI-powered virtual assistants using machine learning to build a database of the teacher's work with a particular student. Another possibility is for the platform to match users with providers automatically.

As a side effect, uberisation may lead to inequalities between those who can afford live communication with a human teacher and those for whom robotic teaching is the only affordable option.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, September 02, 2022