Being Mobile Blog

The Uber-izing of K-12 Is Underway

Uber is a “car-hailing” service (a euphemism for “taxi service”) that is disrupting the taxi industry worldwide. Pre-Uber, finding a taxi, communicating where you wanted to go and paying for the service were steps that were fraught with “friction”: 

  • Finding a taxi in a rainstorm by going to the corner of a street and waving frantically while holding onto an umbrella and a briefcase and hoping that an empty taxi would come by was typical and most unpleasant.
  • Handing a taxi driver in China an address, handwritten by an American tourist on a scrap of paper, was just asking for trouble, namely, being taken to the wrong location.
  • Paying the taxi cab driver with a $20 bill (the only bill you happen to have) for a $4.28 fare was again just asking for trouble. If the driver had just started his shift and didn’t have any cash, he had to drive around to find someone to change the bill — or just get a ridiculously large tip!

Sound familiar?

Starting in 2009, Uber disrupted the taxi industry by using software, GPS and the ubiquitous smartphone. Uber eliminated much of the friction associated with “hailing” a taxi — oops, car — by using modern technology and … well, the rest is history. Uber is on six continents and 67 cities, and the company is currently valued at approximately $50 billion.

Here is a lovely, apocryphal story about how Uber came to be. It is a portion of a blog post from venture capitalist Chris Dixon, working at Palo Alto-based Andreessen-Horowitz, one of the pre-eminent VC firms in the world.

“…multiple startups … tried to build software that would make the taxi and limo industry more efficient.… [the startups] went out and knocked on the door of taxi companies and pitched them on their software.

For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work. Taxi companies weren’t thinking about software as a competitive advantage. They didn’t have the appropriate cost structures or anyone to even evaluate the software.

So when technology startups tried to inject technology and software into that industry, it didn’t take.

Companies like … Uber said: “You know what? Instead of trying to sell software as an add-on, we’re going to just build the whole service using our modern software.” They asked: "What would this industry look like if it were rebuilt from scratch using technology we have today?” (Emphasis added)

Uber is by no means the first to rebuild an industry “from scratch using technology we have today." In 2003, Apple's iTunes Store, by providing digital song downloads for 99 cents, killed the music CD and rebuilt the music industry. In 2015, Spotify and its competitive cousins are rebuilding the music industry again by killing Apple’s download model with its music streaming service.

According to an article in Wired, “Schumpeter argued that capitalism exists in the state of ferment he dubbed 'creative destruction,' with spurts of innovation destroying established enterprises and yielding new ones.” “Creative destruction” is an interesting oxymoron, wouldn’t you say?

And now we come to K-12. Many educational technologists, like both Cathie and Elliot, will hear a familiar refrain in the “taxi story.” We have knocked on doors of classrooms and have tried to interest them in our wares. But, “it didn’t take” and it hasn’t taken. Apps are still an “add-on” in K-12. Is K-12 like the taxi industry that was incapable of changing itself? Must K-12 be Uber-ized, just like the taxi industry?

Indeed, what would K-12 look like if it were “rebuilt from scratch using the technology we have today"?

Khan Academy offers 2,400 educational videos and other educational software for free. As of January 2014, Khan Academy had more than 10 million unique visitors a month. The Khan Academy motto, plastered front and center on its landing page, is. ”You can learn anything. For Free. For everyone. Forever. “

Carpe Diem schools are "trying to upend the way students are taught. In just four days of instruction a week — there’s no school on Fridays — Carpe Diem’s five teachers and four teachers’ aides supplement the concepts their 226 students have learned through a computer program. Teachers also monitor student progress through the program, which calculates grades in real time, zeroing in on the areas in which students are struggling.” In a Carpe Diem school, “…students spend more than half of each school day in their cubicles, headphones plugged in, learning from an online curriculum…. Because Carpe Diem’s model requires fewer teachers than traditional public schools, it’s able to spend on operations only about $5,300 of the roughly $6,300 the school receives per student….” Please, please visit this website and see the picture of the students in their cubicles. 

What both Khan Academy and Carpe Diem have in common is the elimination of teachers. Inasmuch as teachers are the most costly element in a school, it makes good economic sense to squeeze out that cost!

“Squeezing out cost” relentlessly is “economic talk."  Hmm. We’ve never heard a classroom teacher talk about “squeezing out the cost” of explaining to a student, for the third time that afternoon, using three different explanations, why “any number to zero power is 1”. (Would it surprise you if Elliot was the student and Cathie was the teacher?)

The Uber-izing of K-12 in the U.S. and the world is absolutely underway! According to a blurb from a website about “VC-Backed Education Technology”:

 “Funding to education-technology companies is booming. Financing grew from $944M in 2013 to $1.6B in 2014, a 71% increase. In the last four quarters, including Q2’15, ed tech startups attracted $2.3B, a jump of 96% compared to the previous four quarters.

Meanwhile, deal flow ticked down in 2014 compared to the previous year. There were 217 deals in 2014, down from 223 in 2013. Note: This data only includes funding to VC-backed companies in the Ed Tech space.” 

Check out the “Ed Tech Players Disrupting Education.” Would you be surprised to learn that virtually none of them are involved in figuring out new ways to improve the quality of teachers or producing curriculum that teachers in today’s classrooms could use? With a few exceptions (such as Altschool) the reality is this: the Uber-izing of K-12 is most definitely underway — relentlessly underway!

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