Uber and goodbye to all that?

Taking a ride in a black cab in England is luxurious. Bags of room, the taxi scuttles around—weaving through traffic and amazing you with its tight turns. London on summer evenings is particularly lovely. The city’s great buildings bask in sunset colours and Brits enjoy England’s delicate warmth as they saunter along Pall Mall or footpaths in parks.

It’s not just London taxis that are intriguing; taxis in major cities from Rio de Janeiro to New York or Tokyo capture your attention, too. They’re brisk, sometimes sloppily sprung. Patient and persistent in traffic. They have distinct upholstery, doubtful seatbelts and colourful ads.

If you have time, and are not too busy or tired after a long-haul flight, you’ll find the most interesting thing about taxis, however, is the driver. Start chatting.

You’ll get strong political commentary (New York); tales of escape from communist Albania (Los Angeles); a mother who has fled Sudan with only one of her three children boarding the same plane (Wellington); a lawyer from Egypt, thankful for employment, freedom of association and the rule of law (Auckland); a journalist from Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia) who speaks French, German, Italian, Russian and English fluently (Sydney); a medical doctor who can’t reach the cost of retraining in a new country (Paris).

It’s not just traditional taxi drivers who have uplifting and moving stories. Uber drivers do, too.

And the more I talk with the latter the more I am fascinated not only by their lives, but also the phenomenon of Uber. I can see a downside for taxi franchises, but it seems to me that Uber epitomizes common sense and an exemplary use of resources. And, as many have already noted, a wakeup call for education.

Using Uber in the USA crystallised several things for me. From a personal point of view, I liked the convenience, the speed and the price of the Uber experience. I also liked being able to rate my driver. While I’m happy with traditional taxis, I found Uber cars quicker to beckon, cleaner and much cheaper. The same (even better) outcome for half the price.

Speaking with Uber drivers, often refugees or new immigrants, further clarified the pros of the service. The drivers loved the fact that they could set their own hours. All held they earned more than their counterparts. Then there was the fact that they could rate their passengers. This meant a lot to them: talk to any driver and she’ll tell you about passenger drunkenness, verbal abuse and destruction of property (and hours of vacuuming and cleaning off vomit). Dingy ‘clients’ are out there. They make taxi-driving dreadful. Uber names them and shames them, and leaves them on the street, waiting to sober up.

The principles we find at work in Uber are coming to education. Teachers, for example, are being carefully ‘rated’ (for want of a better term). The evaluation is not just done by students, or parents, but increasingly by peers. David Osborne notes, for example, there are 70 ‘teacher-led’ schools across 15 states in America, where peer review is normative. Just as bad drivers lose their business with Uber, so poor teachers lose their student; and if they cannot change—their jobs, too. The rating is simple but effective because it compresses a range of experiences into a single category: competency. And as a rule of thumb that is all we need to know. He’s competent.

Two other principles we see in Uber are also beginning to emerge as social phenomena: the any time and anywhere doctrines. Societies, whether in Europe, North America, Australasia or Asia, like rapidity and immediacy. The image of drones delivering goods to our doorsteps will probably become reality within a decade. But whether it is shopping online, downloading apps or videos, ordering food or purchasing an airline e-ticket, the trend is towards speed, convenience and flexibility.

The same is happening in education—especially in higher education where, for instance, Moodle, Blackboard and Sakai are making learning available to students and employees any time and anywhere.

Pearson eCollege and Edmodo are looking to reimagine the age-old monopolies on time and place in compulsory education. Pretty soon schools with their set timetables and hours of learning will feel the pressure of a new model in education that is more flexible and less scheduled. To this end it will run with students’ interests (within reason): it will serve them.

The sort of ownership that Uber drivers enjoy—where they decide: (1) their hours, (2) where they want to go and (3) who they wish to pick up—is beginning to be seen in education, also.

A growing network of relations is appearing where parents work more closely with teachers and their children. Instead of a situation where a school and its teachers simply get on with inducting children into certain forms of knowledge, we find children beginning to take more ownership over their learning. New Zealand is experimenting with what might be described as ‘learning broker mentors’: educational experts who advise students on how they could learn math, for example, using a particular program or by learning from a teacher in another school.

Increasingly there is a sense among focused teenagers that there are wider options for them: that information and technology are enabling them to ask the ‘when, where and who questions’ around education. Early morning or late evening learning, in the pocket of a café with a group of friends, however clichéd, surfaces as a possibility.

Journalism and political commentary has noted broken ‘social contracts’ with blue-collar workers, and more recently white-collar workers. For the last half century both classes of employees have enjoyed unwritten social contracts that promised them job security, a pension and in some instances healthcare and life insurance. During the last decade, these bonds have gone; and guarantees around tenure and promotion for loyalty are slipping away.

Employers are taking on people for specific short to medium-term tasks; and the workforce from being local is becoming transitory and international. Rather than being a rarity, it is now commonplace for New Zealanders and Australians to work for three months to two years in Singapore, London, or Indonesia, etc.

The sort of flexibility and precision around employment we are seeing, however painful and unsettling, is spreading from industries like Uber to the school sector. Things we have taken for granted to a greater or lesser degree are proving ephemeral. Mr X.—; Ms G.—; yellow buses, large school campuses, pulsating corridors with lockers and classrooms, exam halls, and even libraries, will become the stuff of old movies.

The biggest physical shock to this trend will be felt by school campuses.

Most Departments of Education introduce school districts not simply for ideological reasons but for practical ones. Once a state has invested in building schools and developing campuses, it faces ongoing operational and maintenance costs. In order to meet these expenses, it creates school districts (zones) that lock families (children) into a local school. The funding it gives to the school for educating the children pays the bills for keeping the school going. Sort of circular. That’s fine when it is a good school, but it’s not so good when it’s a sink school—a school that sucks kids into academic and personal failure. The only alternative for parents is to find the funds to send their kids to a private school or a charter school, which often is not an option.

Astute readers will note a conflict of interest whereby Departments of Education are torn between their mandate to (1) educate our kids and (2) maintain their property portfolios (the schools and their campuses). Which should be their priority? And what would happen to failing schools propped up by school districts if it were the first of these?

These questions apart; the point is that the principles and effects typical to Uber will sooner rather than later reach into education and not only reenergize learning flexibility with timetabling; time spent on a subject or topic; the range and type of subjects students study (curricula); and how they learn (apps/videos/programmes/private tutors, etc.—); but it will also shake up school campuses and buildings. A bit like an earthquake. Some schools will stand; perhaps the best, like the grand old buildings in London; but the ‘anywhere’ expectations of this generation (underscored by the Uber experience) will sooner or later reshape the way we approach something we rarely if ever think about: the relationship between physical space and learning.

Take away points: Controversy follows Uber. It threatens established forms of business. It also represents a social and business experience that revolves around immediacy; convenience; efficiency; transparency (rating); sustainability and the responsible use of resources; personal needs; and self-determination. These ‘drivers’ have existed in education for over thirty years, arguably much longer; but as emergent EdTech combines with social expectation great reforming pressure will come to bear on education as we know it. Progressively, students, teachers and parents will opt for more personalized education in terms of (1) content; (2) the way it is leaned; and (3) where it happens. In consequence, many schools that haunt the memories of too many people, and that have wretchedly malformed their lives, will be bulldozed and redeveloped as homes or green spaces.

Two players who are shaping the future of learning: Edmodo and Pearson’s eCollege.

Teacher led schools.

The difference between self-determination, self-esteem and praise that promotes narcissism.



  1. Really interesting developments. Reminds me of the TED talk by Ken Robinson and how schools kill creativity but this is being opened up in the information age.


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