Disrupting Education: Cost or Quality?

In response to When Uber and Airbnb Meet the Real World. A friend got me thinking about how Uber and AirBnB insinuate themselves into an existing “meatspace” industry, only to undo worker protections and government regulations in that industry. This got me thinking about the ambiguity many of us feel as education warily tiptoes towards automating some (all?) of the industry. This is an impassioned plea to examine the costs and pitfalls that may come by disrupting education, and to move towards reform with an eye to preserving what’s good about our existing system.

The Cost of Disruption

What’s implicit in all this Silicon Valley “disruption” is that the ultimate objective for them is to lower costs and increase profits for themselves by outsourcing the actual work to independent, un-benefited, un-insured wage slaves.

I recently used an Uber and asked the driver about his bottom line. He told me he only drives an Uber part time, and that he averages “about six or seven dollars an hour“. He owns (and pays to maintain) his own car, and he doesn’t receive health benefits or special car insurance. He said he knew that it was not a great deal for him, but he held out hope that Uber would start offering more worker benefits and protections as the two-year old company grows more established and government regulation catches up to the young car-sharing industry.

This downward push on worker wages and protections is the next chapter of WalMart’s ’90s era “innovation” in offering low prices by doing away with antiquated notions like health benefits, living wages, and union work. I don’t think anyone would argue that services like Uber, AirBnB, or WalMart are a BETTER overall deal for consumers or producers– rather, they’re a “good enough” alternative to paying full price for hotels, cabs, and blue jeans.

We forget that the “full price” of these goods was built up over time, including the costs of not only the inputs but the quality control, the customer service, the worker protections, and competitive wages we’ve come to expect as a society. When we try to chip away at the “full price” of a good or service, we must be explicit and careful about which corners we’re cutting.

Disrupting an industry like the shaving razor means correcting a long-standing imbalance in the market, where a small number of companies dominate the market and wildly overcharge for an easily commoditizable product. Disrupting the taxi industry, by contrast, means cutting into union workers’ wages, consumer protections, and industry regulations.

Disrupting Education: Cost or Quality?

Nowhere is this tension more delicate than in the education industry’s baby steps towards cheap/free automated learning like MOOCs and Competency Based Learning. Teachers and administrators appear genuinely uncertain whether this is all a ruse to replace people with robots, or whether the end goal will actually deliver on the promise of better, cheaper, more effective learning outcomes for students. Even from administrators and theorists, it would be nice if everyone explicitly stated where on this continuum they fall.

I don’t believe that online education could or should follow the Uber/ AirBnB model. The objective of education reform should not be lower prices for a slightly shoddier product, it should result in more effective learning for more people for less money than we have today.

I’ve written extensively here about what the classroom of the future should look like, but it essentially boils down to making better use of the unique gifts of human educators, while making better use of the unique benefits technology adds to student learning. The end product can and should be a historic step forward in the way humans learn, not just a cost-cutting measure that benefits our societal elites.

The Politics of Crisis

It’s worth stating publicly that we’re having this conversation about cost vs. quality against the backdrop of a systematic campaign of defunding and discrediting public education on the part of anti-government, anti-tax conservatives. This puts upward pressure on student tuition rates, downward pressure on instructor wages and school budgets, and fuels a push towards privatization of once publicly-funded services.

In other words, there are some organized groups in our society who would like to see education disrupted in something like the Uber/AirBnB model.

This political issue creates the atmosphere of crisis that has resulted in both constructive and destructive conversations around education reform. It has forced education to re-examine its budgets, increase transparency, and focus on student outcomes in a way it has long been able to ignore. However, it has created a noxious and pervasive atmosphere of “us or them” antagonism, pitting tenured faculty against adjuncts, administrators against faculty, non-profit schools against for-profits, politicians against unions, and on and on.

Agreeing to Move Forward Together

What’s needed is for all stakeholders to agree on a few key principles:

  1. The ultimate objective is to radically improve student learning outcomes for the largest possible number of students, whatever the cost.

  2. Human instructors are essential to students’ development and academic achievement. They should not be replaced, but they should be allowed to specialize and focus on the most high-leverage student interactions: competency assessment, learning content creation, learning interaction design, and student support.

  3. The purpose of technology in education is to support teachers to provide students with high-quality content, learning interactions, and support towards mastery of competencies.

Please discuss these ideas with your fellow instructors, administrators, support staff, and students. Don’t allow your school to follow WalMart, Uber, and AirBnB by cutting away the best of the original experience.

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