George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.
Chapter 16, Pages 666-667
MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?
For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.
The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012). After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.
MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.
Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.
Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.
Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.
Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.