Navigating Learning: Uber vs. Waze

“Driverless Ed Tech: The History of the Future of Automation in Education” is the latest in a long series of insightful critiques of “disruptive” educational technology from the freelance journalist Audrey Watters. She points to the troubling proliferation of the “Uber for education” analogy, mostly recently picked up by Betty DeVos, and traces the vision of fully automated education back to Skinner. She argues that most “personalized” learning technology being funded by venture capitalists or marketed by large publishers seeks both to eliminate the need for professional educators and to make education a completely individualized pursuit of a private good.

However, there ought to be ways of using data to recommend paths or courses of action that do not reduce the agency of teachers and students or advance radical individualism. Perhaps a more promising (if still imperfect) analogy would be "Waze for education"? Waze is a GPS navigation app that uses traffic data to recommend the fastest route. But you're still the driver. You can share information about road closures and speed traps, thanking others and sharing your ETA if you wish, nudging the effort to get where we want to go in a collective direction. I have lived in Washington, DC for close to 15 years and know my way around quite well, but I use Waze everyday because it augments my existing expertise, allowing me to benefit from the experiences of other drivers on a scale that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

Watters contrasts the driverless car with public transportation, implicitly offering it as her own analogy to public education. As with riding the bus, sometimes in schools we have to wait for others, choose our paths and destinations in relationship to a community-wide understanding of where people want to go, and work to change that understanding when it doesn’t get us to where we need to be.

Ideally, perhaps, we would all ride the bus. In reality, we live in a car culture that dates back several decades earlier than Skinner’s automated education experiments. Displacing individualism in American culture would require a disruption far more dramatic than any Silicon Valley has achieved so far.

Given the resources available to educational technology developers who reject the "driverless" vision, an alternative focus might be to provide teachers and students with tools that recommend and connect within the context of social learning. Choice, both individual and group, is central to many collaborative learning pedagogies and the way the best teachers structure their classrooms. Can technology augment the expertise of educators and students as they make these socially situated choices?

When I use Waze to drive around town, more often than not, I am headed to places where I am engaging with my fellow citizens in and about the pursuit of our collective future. I drive to my sons’ school to help plan the middle school expansion, to the Wilson Building to lobby the city council with Standing Up for Racial Justice, or to this month’s Cub Scout Pack Meeting. Waze helps with the literal dimension of navigating the complex social landscape of practice within which I live. Making it easier to make powerful choices that connect us to the project of living and learning together is an objective for technology research and development I can endorse.