Charles Basenga Kiyanda

The uberization of everything

Had a discussion at a C2 organized, Michelin sponsored conference on mobility named “Movin’on” (I can’t say I agree with the title choice, but whatever) during which the owner of a trucking company admitted that the coming change in his industry is the “uberization” of the work.

Uberization = the transition from a client-provider relationship to an open bidding process based on an individual request. Instead of hiring a sub-contractor to perform a block of work (say Amazon hires company X for the following block of 14000 loads of merchandise transport), you open a bidding process on a per service basis (Amazon advertises individual loads to move, as they are available with an advertised price they’re willing to pay).

This had me thinking that “uberization”, in a way, is coming to teaching and academia. Youtube didn’t exist when I was a student. Nowadays, students routinely come to class and challenge a given concept with a partial explanation from a youtube video or another website. I’m not using the word “challenge” in an adversarial sense here, but actually as part of the learning process. In other words, the goal of the student is to go from (A) not knowing a concept to (B) understanding and applying a concept. The standard process is usually thought to be

  1. Prof (P) exposes concept (C) to Student (S), (usually in a group).
  2. P completes example of C to S.
  3. S reviews (usually alone) C.
  4. S applies C to simple problem.
  5. S applies C to harder problem.
  6. P tests S on C during exam or project.

The real process is actually a back and forth between prof and student, depending on the level of understanding of the student. This process is what I experienced when I was a student.

  1. P exposes C to S.
  2. P completes example C as demonstration.
  3. S reviews C.
  4. S attempts problems involving C.
  5. S challenges P with partially completed/incorrectly completed problems involving C.
  6. P demonstrates the missing/faulty parts in reasoning.
  7. Go back to step 3 as needed.
  8. P tests S on C during exam or project.

More and more, though, I have students challenging me with outside knowledge. This process is new to me.

  1. P exposes C to S and completes example using C. (This part is often skipped by S.)
  2. S reviews C from P material and from outside material (youtube, Kahn academy, etc).
  3. S challenges P regarding C using material from a variety of sources.
  4. P demonstrates the missing/faulty parts in reasoning and in outside material.
  5. Go back to step 2 as needed.
  6. P tests S on C during exam or project.

The next logical step is that we do away with step 1 altogether and students “pull” information from professors as needed. There’s no class anymore, the student is learning on their own and challenges P (of their choosing) on C using their material. Sherbrooke university actually tried this approach starting some time in 1998-1999. They introduced a pure project based learning approach with no classes. The university eventually “dialed back” the project-based approach and re-introduced more formal classes for, at least, basic concepts. The problem with the pure “pull model” of learning is that

  • a novice does not have the knowledge to know what to look for nor how to look for it
  • without a constant interaction between students and professors, I have less opportunity to direct specific students to specific projects, specific professors, or specific concepts depending on their skill set, interests, etc. (I actually do this. I hire undergraduates to work on research. I have undergraduate students referred to me by other professors to work on projects, etc.)
  • a novice does not have the skills to evaluate whether a given material is indeed correct or incorrect. I routinely get students challenging me with material that is either wrong or that does not correspond exactly to the material covered in the class. Sometimes, nomenclature is murky and different people and sources will name subtly different concepts by the same name. The novice is still learning the skills to spot those differences.

Right now, I would contend that universities are completely unprepared and maybe even unaware of the coming possibility of the uberization of education. In engineering, the only last resort protection of our model is that we have a regulating body enforcing a certain course of studies for students to be able to practice as engineers (at least in Quebec and certain other jurisdictions).

The question is then: “How do we, as universities and academics, adapt our teaching methods to retain an effective learning path for students while conforming to students’ expectations so that they don’t drop out of our system?”

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