“Airbnb for higher ed” and “Uber for higher ed” have become recurring buzz phrases in the higher education world. A piece on the topic that recently caught my attention describes ALEX, a platform developed by Harvard University students that connects employers and their individual employees with college classrooms that have unfilled seats. Employers can reduce their internal training costs, employees can improve their educational attainment and skills, and higher education institutions can generate additional tuition revenue. Its comparison with Airbnb seems to stem from the idea that unfilled classroom seats are made available to consumers the same way that unfilled beds are. Additionally, the platform can provide a service at a lower cost to the consumer, it saves time by automatically matching customer need with product availability, and it consequently makes the product accessible to a larger and more diverse audience.

Other comparisons of educational innovations with Airbnb and Uber have focused on innovations’ potential to “disrupt” higher education the way those services have disrupted their respective industries. For example, this past March the SXSWEdu conference dedicated a session to “What Higher Ed Can Learn from Uber and Airbnb” with a focus on disruption. It featured panelists whose companies seek to connect colleges and universities with employers in different ways, whether by helping community colleges identify skills valued by employers and adjust their curricula accordingly or offering students the means to represent their skills and competencies in ways that are more aligned with employer needs than the traditional transcript. It seems that the “disruption” component that connects these different initiatives stems from the idea that consumers can meet their needs for a particular product by turning to a modern marketplace that more flexibly connects those looking for a service and those who offer a service.

So far, however, one key feature of Airbnb and Uber that does not seem to have really made its way into higher education is enabling a lay person to act as a provider. There is something about having an ordinary person provide a service that makes an industry seem more open, accessible, and human. For example, would it be possible to have a job-shadowing app, whereby professionals post their profiles and offerings on the app, and students can link up with professionals in their geographical area and spend time participating in a job-related event? This could attract all sorts of industries, specialists, and types of individuals who are otherwise disconnected from higher education, to offer students unique real-world career experiences of their choosing.

Although the Airbnbs of higher education appear for now to be filling some gaps and providing complementary supports to the field rather than disrupting it, they hold promise for meeting emerging student needs in useful and efficient ways. They also have the potential to bring new sectors and populations into the higher education world and eventually impact the field in new unexpected ways.