Today’s Kernel piece is a deep dive by Bianca Aguilar into edtech programs like MOOCs and bootcamps, and how their empowerment of students can often be masqueraded exploitation.
Fast Food Education
By Bianca Aguilar (she/her)
Speed and scale are redefining industries: fast food changes what we eat, fast fashion changes what we wear, and now, fast food education is changing how and what we learn. Powered by technology, fast food education is capable of disrupting the ancient higher education sector, allowing more people than ever to pursue learning — a worthy goal. But what is being marketed as empowerment is often instead masqueraded exploitation.
What is fast food education, and why is it attractive?
"The true value proposition of education is employment."
- Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun
Fast food education is education influenced by what sociologist George Ritzer calls "McDonaldization": a process where principles of the fast food industry, driven by “rationality,” are dominating other sectors of society (Willis, n.d.). In the education sector, this is expressed through vocational education, which is known for a short timeframe, accessible costs, and a practical curriculum. This essay focuses on programs that are prominent in the edtech industry: compressed courses like massive open online courses (MOOCs), and skills-based intensives such as bootcamps.
Four characteristics define McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.
Efficiency is about choosing the fastest and cheapest (in expenditure and effort) way to achieve a goal. This is usually advertised as a benefit to the consumer — for instance, even if MOOCs are cheap, students are “paying” for the privilege of handling pacing and grading by themselves, which are tasks that are usually done by the teacher. Calculability is about making objectives based on what can be calculated, counted, quantified. Under McDonaldization, quantity equals quality: the high number of people enrolled in MOOCs seems to make up for a low three to six percent completion rate (Reich & Ruipérez-Valiente, 2019). Predictability is about minimizing the possibility of surprise. Consumers expect to receive the same product and service no matter where they go: all coding bootcamps offer nearly identical curriculums. Finally, control is about replacing people — the biggest source of uncertainty and unpredictability in a “rational” system — with nonhuman technology. Everything is pre-packaged, pre-measured, and automatically controlled. MOOCs themselves are pre-packaged systems (Ritzer, 2013); they’re often designed to have short pre-recorded lectures and embedded questions that give automatic feedback.
The McDonaldization of fast food education makes sense when one considers that it’s designed to benefit the system, not the student. Writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (2018) calls this phenomenon Lower Ed, a term she coined to describe the increasing emphasis on credentialism, especially among marginalized communities, as the path to financial stability. She argues that this was created by changes in the way we work, unequal access to liberal education programs, and the risk shift of job training from institutions to individuals for profit.
These broad structural patterns tie into fast food education’s rise in popularity; it’s part of the third education revolution, which is about continual training throughout a person's lifetime (Selingo, 2018). People are compelled to enroll in such programs because of very real fears: being left behind by digitalization, losing jobs to automation, and becoming irrelevant in a fluctuating talent economy. They have also lost faith in traditional institutions; due to expensive costs, long timeframes, and slow adaptation, they believe that these institutions aren’t suited to prepare them for their careers (International Consultants for Education and Fairs, 2019).
These fears are even more pronounced in the Global South, especially Southeast Asia. Demographic trends, cultural shifts, and economic growth have prompted regional demand for higher education (Sharma, Pelley, & Vazifdar, 2016), but socio-economic barriers such as a global recession, outdated infrastructure, and political instability have made higher education an inaccessible or undesirable option (Lau, 2021).
In short, people are pressured to upskill in order to keep up with a rapidly developing world. This makes MOOCs and bootcamps, which market themselves as better investments by “guaranteeing careers” (compared to higher education), especially attractive.
Empowerment or exploitation?
"Rational systems are unreasonable systems...they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them."
- George Ritzer
Compared to a liberal arts education, fast food education is more affordable in terms of time and cost spent. Additionally, since it’s mostly remote, programs are open to people all over the world. The increased accessibility helps educate, train, and empower populations previously denied access to similar opportunities, in areas like the Global South. This also reduces "brain drain" by allowing students to gain expertise locally, instead of having to migrate. But no matter how much education is rationalized, there are bound to be irrational outcomes.
Despite its promises of disruption, fast food education upholds the status quo.
Accessibility comes at a cost. Fast food education is known for being lower quality, from what is taught to how it is taught. Since it has a short timeframe, it can only focus on teaching practical skills and methods. For example, programs that teach code focus on frameworks over fundamentals (Pronschinske, 2021), while those that teach user experience (UX) design skip foundational disciplines like anthropology and art history (Teixeira & Braga, n.d.). Content aside, these programs’ curriculums are notoriously unreliable. See Lambda School, which was criticized by their students for constantly changing lesson plans and relying on free training materials (Schiffer & Farokhmanesh, 2020).
Delivery of content, such as through technical production, is also important. Third-party providers have put their reputations at risk for insufficient screening (Parr, 2014), leading to the release of courses with shaky filming and conventional slides. Pacing is also compromised in fast food education, where MOOCs and bootcamps seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. The former’s pace is completely dependent on the students, and most end up dropping out, leading to completion rates lower than 10% (Chafkin, 2016). Meanwhile, the latter is known for being so fast-paced that students struggle to keep up.
Given all of this, the lack of official accreditation makes it especially difficult for graduates to prove what they have learned. While this lack of oversight has enabled programs to constantly update their curriculum, it has also lessened their credibility, which job-seeking students would benefit from. If graduates are already struggling with interviews (McBride, 2016), how else can they ensure that they will be hired? Students of fast food education will be at a disadvantage in the current market, which is more competitive than ever due to globalization and the internet.
The market supposedly calls for universal knowledge, skills, and values. As a result, students aren’t taught how to stand out. Through this standardization, fast food education brings about cultural hybridization, which is the process of blending two or more cultures to fit cultural norms (Bell (Ed.), n.d.). Allowing for variety speeds up historical, economic, and cultural development. However, there’s a fine line between cultural hybridization and cultural hegemony, where dominance is maintained through ideological and cultural means (Cole, 2020). In the case of fast food education, the Global North, and especially countries in the West, is set as the universal standard for others to follow. This is compounded by the acceptance of English as the “universal” language. Minorities who aren't able to communicate well in English are seen as “lesser quality”, even if they are proficient in the craft itself.
The field of design is a clear example of cultural hegemonization. In a talk at a prominent design conference, a senior designer describes how he associated "good design" with his Euro-centric aesthetic of minimalist design, and was only able to question it because of a junior designer of color (Figma, 2021). Prevalent design theories often come from white males born decades ago. Thus, what’s considered “quality design” is limited to their perspective. For instance, low-end magazines and East Asian media cannot afford the standard abundance of white space.
Standardization also means that students learn to produce homogenized work. For instance, student projects are often made with structured templates. "The case study factory" (Teixeira & Braga, n.d.) discusses how formulaic case studies make it difficult to differentiate UX or UI designers from one another. These studies may demonstrate the students' ability to follow the design process, but not their unique thinking, skills, and point of view.
Imposing the logic of factory production on education kills students’ creativity, turning it into repetitive drudgery (Lossin & Battle, 2020). But that’s the goal of fast food education — the myopic focus on hard skills and technical competencies is effective for producing workers, not well-rounded people.
Finally, the rhetoric of accessibility in fast food education obscures the reality of its inequity. According to education researchers Mizuko Ito and Justin Reich (2017), digital learning technologies actually exacerbate disparity in learning outcomes in terms of class, race, and gender. The distance from users causes creators of these edtech tools to bias these resources towards the highly privileged. According to sociologist Paul Attwell, these inequalities operate at two levels: the first and second digital divides. The former divide is about access — who is able to get devices, software, connectivity, and other forms of technology. To those without reliable internet, remote learning is a far-off opportunity. The latter divide is about leverage — when poor and affluent students are given the same technologies, the former tend to use it for basic skills, while the latter use it for higher forms of learning. Those who enroll in MOOCs and bootcamps tend to be well-off college graduates who already have jobs (Bowring, Lyon & Burke, 2017; Konnikova, 2014).
More concretely, money is also a barrier. Despite being marketed as the more affordable" option, bootcamps can range from $5,000 to $20,000 (Gallagher, 2021). Even the most inexpensive MOOCs are used to advertise higher-priced professional programs (Newton, 2018). Income sharing agreements (ISAs) are marketed as an accessible option to those who aren't able to pay full price, but they are just another form of student debt (Kreighbaum, 2019). For instance, despite being free, studying at Lambda School still comes at a cost. Schiffer & Farokhmanesh (2020) reported that some students quit their jobs to attend full-time, while others worked nights and weekends. Even worse, being bound to ISAs makes legal intervention and collective action more difficult for students.
Finally, the content of fast food education encourages saviorism by preaching technology as the answer, and instills in technologists the belief that they hold all the answers. Researcher Matthew Kiem (2016) argues that the “learn to code” movement is actually a colonial civilizing mission in disguise. Elites want more diverse coders not for the sake of universal progress, but for saving on labor costs and access to new markets—which is why Silicon Valley is fond of outsourcing to the Global South (Hilliard, 2014), especially when it comes to what Gray & Suri (2019) call ghost work. But even with fewer barriers to entry, differentiating standards are still enforced by the capitalist system: those who are technical are divided according to their dispensability, and those who aren't technical at all are seen as deficient. This mindset also extends to the students. Being trained makes them see others as underdeveloped, and thus in need of their technical skills. This can lead to reductive seduction, where the students oversimplify others’ problems by assuming that they can build solutions for them (Sun, 2018). But making solutions for, and not with people in need only ends up hurting them, perpetuating existing inequalities.
Despite its promises of disruption, fast food education upholds the status quo.
True innovation lies not in fast food education, but in democratizing holistic tech education.
"The object of all true education is not to make [people] carpenters, but to make carpenters [people]."
- Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois.
Making people: this is what fast food education should strive for. Democratizing technical skills is important, but developing these doesn’t need to be incompatible with cultivating critical thinking in students. We can see a glimpse of what’s possible in Tech Learning Collective (2019), an apprenticeship-based technology school that presents itself as an anti-bootcamp and approaches technology like gardening. The curriculum is focused on foundational skill building; the land must first be fertile before a garden can bloom on it. Instead of immediately teaching a coding language, instructors start with teaching digital infrastructure, such as security, networking, and system administration. These basics are vital to programming. By going back to their digital roots, students become more aware of their immediate environment. Numerous possibilities open up when these students realize they aren’t limited to the proprietary products of Big Tech; instead, they can build what they need on their own, thanks to free and open source software.
The school also advocates for cross-pollination. Their workshops are interdisciplinary, melding technical topics with the humanities, in subjects including history and philosophy. This allows for a more holistic development for the students. For instance, like they do with all their other courses, they teach cybersecurity through an explicitly political approach (Tech Learning Collective, 2019). They prioritize teaching security because of their audience, as many participants are also activists. They also cultivate critical thinking by encouraging their students to scrutinize technology from an ethical standpoint.
In a statement on their website, Tech Learning Collective describes their approach: “much like the advice encouraging you to eat foods whose ingredients you can pronounce and grow on soil you have left your footprints on, we believe that our engagement with technology ought to be as directly integrated as possible with our everyday lives." Thanks to their programs’ technological and political immersion, their students reclaim power over the work they do and are able to truly flourish.
However, this type of education isn’t enough to address issues of inequity, such as the costliness of tuition and the digital divide. After all, despite its unhealthiness, there’s a reason why people still eat fast food — the benefits of mass distribution simply outweigh the costs. In fact, quality may even be a necessary compromise that makes mass distribution possible. For those in power, there’s little to gain from pushing for more personalized and holistic education; the vocational approach — utilitarian and efficient — has much more social and economic incentive (EdMuse, 2020). If we want an alternative to fast food education, we need to support smaller and more tailored initiatives. These would be like local independent restaurants, the perfect balance between cheap and low quality (fast food), and expensive and high quality (fine dining). Aside from Tech Learning Collective, there are experimental schools like Logic School and Hyperlink Academy, social good fellowships like Impact Labs and Civic Digital, and critical communities like Reboot and Developh. It is in these efforts where I find hope for the future of education.
Perhaps it's too ambitious to hold fast food education to the standards of a fine dining experience. But being responsible for the development of many is nothing to make light of, especially if they've already been disenfranchised by society. Education is not a product, but a process (Warner, 2007). No student should be forced to consume packaged shallow content; rather, everyone deserves solid building blocks to help them grow — just like nutritional food. True innovation lies not in fast food education, but in democratizing holistic tech education. With all that the edtech industry is capable of, that hopefully won't be such a tall order to fill.
The digital home and full reference list for this piece, as well as for all other Kernel pieces, is at kernelmag.io.
Bianca Aguilar (she/her) is a designer, artist, and educator from Manila, Philippines. Her work revolves around education, innovation, and community in the digital realm. Find her on Twitter, Substack, or her personal website.
What do you dream of?
I'd be an artist, creative technologist, and researcher dedicated to exploring my interests in movement, learning, and technology. Our devices have made us so disconnected from our bodies; I believe that encouraging embodiment through technology will be better for our wellbeing.
What have you been reading lately?
I can't recommend enough Ted Chiang's short story collections, like Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. Because of him, I fell in love with sci-fi and speculative fiction as a whole; reading these genres have made me a more thoughtful designer and human being.
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Eat your veggies,