Commentary

When ‘Uberization’ Comes to Education

October 07, 2016

Last month, a professor at Pratt Institute posted an enthusiastic note on an all-faculty email forum dreaming of what ‘Uberization’ might do for education. The author posted the following response:

I have just downloaded the app Uberstand to my phone — the "revolutionary" app that seamlessly converts academics into a standing reserve of mobile, on-demand, adjunct knowledge providers. The app is designed to meet the real-time needs of institutes of higher learning and their customers, who often find themselves operating with a knowledge deficit, or what the industry terms a "need-to-know."

Now, whether I am walking by the New School or the Sorbonne, I can be hailed by means of a notification on my phone’s home screen if anyone happens to require a lecture on a variety of topics in media theory, film history, social analysis, and the like. My rates are competitive, and I only give 28 percent of my fee to Uberstand. Payment is made electronically, and there is, much to the relief of all concerned, no tipping.

On the consumer side, the user can see my list of canned lectures and my geolocation so that they can precisely approximate my arrival time from the moment they want an academic performance. This means that if I happen to be passing by a university I can be called even in the middle of someone’s class when, for example, the lecturer is stumped by a student’s question. They can also see my rating (one to five graduation caps), and rate me after the transaction. Of course, I can rate them too (and in some cases my ratings affect their grades), so usually all my lectures begin with what, for obvious practical reasons, has become the most significant query of my academic performance: "Five for five?"

One marvels at the miracles of modern technologies and their heretofore unimaginable affordances. Now, whether I’m out to dinner, going for a run, having a glass of wine, or just wasting time answering emails from colleagues, I have the possibility of dropping whatever I’m doing and filling a need-to-know for some cold hard cash.

With the extra money I am earning, I am hoping to be able to upgrade to Uberstand Luxe, which will allow me to leverage my growing reputation and to accept gigs even in places where I’m not located physically, with the understanding that I will subcontract a suitable "need-to-know" provider from my "network."

Frankly, if I were you, I’d get in on this bandwidth pretty quick because there is talk in the industry of following the path of the driverless car just a little down the road — analogous like. Just as drivers are being replaced with "the driverless car," perhaps soon (and some say inevitably) we need-to-know providers will be replaced by "the teacherless classroom," or, as some pundits prefer, "the lifeless professor."

They say that this second-generation technology will reduce congestion (and noise!) around universities by up to 80 percent. Students will benefit, too, because they will be able to text and email while in class without giving offense to the robotic amalgam of Google, Wikipedia, and Netflix at the podium. In fact, since they can download the transmitted material directly onto their computers even without attending to the lecture, their time will be entirely freed up for higher pursuits.

Hopefully they will be thinking about how to electronically swarm with their fellow graduates-to-be and other debtors to start an energetic campaign for a guaranteed global wage.

Jonathan L. Beller is a professor of humanities and media studies and director of the graduate program in media studies at Pratt Institute.