As College Innovation Efforts Grow, So Do Warnings of a...

Digital Learning

As College Innovation Efforts Grow, So Do Warnings of a ‘McDonaldization’ of Higher Ed

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 30, 2018

As College Innovation Efforts Grow, So Do Warnings of a ‘McDonaldization’ of Higher Ed

Do you want fries with that education?

The question is one that many professors fear is essentially coming to colleges, as higher-ed leaders adopt practices from businesses in an attempt to rethink their operations. There’s even a growing body of scholarly work that outlines a critique against the corporatization of college—arguing that even when reforms are well-intentioned, they are making campuses more like burger franchises than centers of learning and research.

One of the most-cited versions of the critique is the 2002 book “The McDonaldization of Higher Education,” by Dennis Hayes and Robin Wynyard. The formulation is meant to provoke, and the authors boil their argument into four bullet points (adopting the style and spirit of the business books they critique). They argue that when college leaders adopt corporate practices in their reforms, they seek to bring efficiency, predictability, calculability and control to the academic process, at the expense of the core values of the academy.

The line of argument, nodding to a broader critique by sociologist George Ritzer who wrote “The McDonaldization of Society,” applies the work of German sociologist Max Weber (who was famous for riffing on what he saw as Kafkaesque modes of modern life) to debates about reforms happening on campuses today.

“It’s really about the bureaucratization of universities,” said Hayes, a professor of education at the University of Derby, in a recent interview with EdSurge. Often such changes start, Hayes said, with well-meaning objectives—like increasing the quality of teaching—but they can easily backfire. Once bureaucracies are put in place, and numeric factors are created to do things like measure and rank universities, those new processes tend to drive decisions. He calls this the“McDonaldization paradox”—that measures installed to improve education instead become inhibitors to creativity in classrooms. College leaders, he argues, are just not good at the business-style frameworks they’re putting in place.

His work focuses on British universities, where he says McDonaldization has taken hold more firmly than in the U.S. He specifically faults measures such as the National Student Survey, a satisfaction poll administered to undergraduates during their final year of study in colleges throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He argued that the survey has led to an over-expansion of administrators put in to satisfy students rather than increase academic quality.

He also objects to a push by some British universities to break course material down into key competencies. “We often ask students to write an essay of 3,000 words on a topic, and it must have six learning outcomes,” he said. “So students write 500 words on each of the learning outcomes—and if they don’t, they’ll get marked down by the grader.” That has created a culture that discourages creativity, he argued. “Over a period of time everybody becomes intellectually lazy.”

Other scholars have applied the McDonaldization framework to a variety of academic institutions and disciplines—to nursing education, academic libraries, and specific U.S. institutions, including Arizona State University.

Some college administrators and edtech executives paint professors who resist innovation efforts as out of touch or opposed to technology. But Hayes stressed that he’s not against tech. Rather, he objects to what he sees as attempts to shut faculty members out of discussions of how to bring change to teaching and academic services.

“If you want technology to be used, you’ve got to win the argument for it” with faculty members, he said.

Finding Models

Some academic-innovation leaders say they agree with the spirit of the McDonaldization critique—arguing that innovation at colleges should be done carefully, and that it should not focus on efficiency.

“If we go down the path of making everything efficient, we’re going to lose the chance to have that space for discovery,” said Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College, who has grappled with such critiques in her essays on innovation. “It’s about making the space for discovery. And industry does this. Models that you have in the most innovative corporate environments are the ones we should be looking at in higher ed.”

She stressed that what works for one type of college might not work for others—something she said has been true for corporations as well. For instance, a lead developer of the Post-It note at industrial giant 3M has said on record that the company had a terrible experience using a trendy innovation method known as Six Sigma, arguing that it almost “killed innovation” at the company.

Eshleman recommends a book by Steven Johnson called “Where Good Ideas Come From” for examples of how companies have succeeded in generating great new ideas. “One of the key features of innovation is they’ve generally evolved over time as slow hunches,” she said, summing up his argument. “You have to allow the conditions for those kind of slow hunches to happen.”

While that approach might work for Davidson, she noted that the advice may be of little use to a college facing financial troubles. “We have the luxury of doing that because we’re not in an immediate crisis,” she added. “It really does boil down to that tension between efficiency and innovation.”

Meanwhile, for institutions not in a crisis, the question is how to encourage innovation when things seem to be going just fine. “Success is the biggest barrier to change,” Eshleman said. She suggested looking for “pain points” for faculty that new ideas and approaches could help address.

Getting faculty buy-in for such efforts, though, can be a challenge—especially in an era when the McDonaldization critique serves as the backdrop, and many professors worry that some new push by administrators today could turn into a future threat to their profession.

Eshleman pointed to a controversy a few years ago at Amherst College. In 2013, Amherst considered experimenting with massive open online courses (also known as MOOCs) by forming a partnership with a nonprofit called edX. The matter was put to a vote of the faculty, and it was struck down by a large majority.

To Eshleman, the story is one of missed opportunity. Davidson also experimented with MOOCs around that time, and even though the effort did not live up to the hype, Eshleman said her college learned important lessons about how to try new things that the institution is benefitting from now. “What it really catalyzed for us is we saw for the first time how we could do [research and development],” she said. “That’s not what we went into this thinking we would learn.”

Her advice to other college leaders: Don’t start with some grand vision for where a new effort will take the institution, but go in looking to learn and to improve.

Still, she admits that getting faculty input is "tricky." “If you just try to get the buy-in first without doing anything,” she added, “I don’t think anything will happen.”

Yet academics like Dennis Hayes say that in higher education broadly, things are moving too far away from getting faculty input. “One thing that’s missing in a lot of these technical innovations is the free flow of debate,” he argues. “There’s a drift toward not having the debate.”

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