McDonald’s as a learning technology

Whenever I visit a new country, region or city I visit McDonald’s as soon as I can to have a Bic Mac and an orange juice. Actually, in Delhi that turns into a Big Raj (no beef on the menu) and in some places I substitute a wine or a beer for the orange juice, but the food is not really important. There are local differences but it’s pretty much as horrible wherever you go.

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I inflict this on myself because The McDonald’s Experience should, on the whole, be a pretty consistent thing the world over: that’s how it is designed. Except that it isn’t the same. The differences, however, compared with the differences between one whole country or city and another, are relatively slight and that’s precisely the point. The small differences make it much easier to spot them, and to focus on them, to understand their context and meaning. Differences in attitudes to cleaning, attitudes to serving, washroom etiquette, behaviour of customers, decor, menu, ambiance, care taken preparing or keeping the food etc are much easier to absorb and reflect upon than out on the street or in more culturally diverse cafes because they are more firmly anchored in what I already know. Tatty decor in McDonald’s restaurants in otherwise shiny cities speak worlds about expectations and attitudes, open smiles or polite nods help to clarify social expectations and communication norms. Whether people clear their own tables, whether the dominant clientele are fat, or families, or writers, whether it’s a proletarian crowd or full of intelligentsia or a place that youth hang out.  Whether people smoke, whether they drink. How loud the music (if any) is playing. The layout of the seating. How people greet their friends, how customers are greeted, how staff interact. How parents treat their children. There’s a wide range of different more or less subtle clues that tell me more about the culture in 20 minutes than days spent engaging more directly with the culture of a new place. Like the use of  the Big Mac Index to compare economies,  the research McDonald’s puts into making sure it fits in also provides a useful barometer to compare cultures.

McDonald’s thus serves as a tool to make it easier to learn. This is about distributed cognition. McDonald’s channels my learning, organises an otherwise disorganised world for me. It provides me with learning that is within my zone of proximal development. It helps me to make connections and comparisons that would otherwise be far more complex. It provides an abstract, simplified model of a complex subject.

It’s a learning technology. 

Of course, if it were the only technology I used then there would be huge risks of drawing biased conclusions based on an outlier, or of misconstruing something as a cultural feature when it is simply the result of a policy that is misguidedly handed down from a different culture. However, it’s a good start, a bit of scaffolding that lets me begin to make sense of confusion, that makes it easier to approach the maelstrom outside more easily, with a framework to understand it.

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There are many lessons to be drawn from this when we turn our attention to intentionally designed learning technologies like schools, classrooms, playgrounds,  university websites, learning management systems, or this site, the Landing. Viewed as a learning technology about foreign culture, McDonald’s is extraordinarily fit for purpose. It naturally simplifies and abstracts salient features of a culture, letting me connect my own conceptions and beliefs with something new, allowing me to concentrate on the unfamiliar in the context of the familiar. Something similar happens when we move from one familiar learning setting to the next. When we create a course space in, say, Moodle or Blackboard, we are using the same building blocks (in Blackboard’s case, quite literally) as others using the same system, but we are infusing it with our own differences, our own beliefs, our own expectations. Done right, these can channel learners to think and behave differently, providing cues, expectations, implied beliefs, implied norms, to ease them from one familiar way of thinking into another. It can encourage ways of thinking that are useful, metacognitive strategies that are embedded in the space. Unfortunately, like McDonald’s, the cognitive embodiment of the designed space is seldom what learning designers think about. Their focus tends to be on content and activities or, for more enlightened designers, on bending the tools to fit a predetermined pedagogy. Like McDonald’s, the end result can be rather different from the intended message. I don’t think that McDonald’s is trying to teach me the wealth of lessons that I gain from visiting their outlets and, likewise, I don’t think most learning designers are trying to tell me:

  • that learning discussions should be done in private places between consenting adults;
  • that it is such a social norm to cheat that it’s worth highlighting on the first page of the study guide;
  • that teachers are not important enough to warrant an image or even an email link on the front page;
  • that students are expected to have so little control that, instead of informative links to study guide sections, they are simply provided with a unit number to guide their progress;
  • that the prescribed learning outcomes are more important than how they will be learned, the growth, and the change in understanding that will occur along the way.

And yet, too many times, that’s what the environment is saying: in fact, it is often a result of the implied pedagogies of the technology itself that many such messages are sent and reinforced. The segregation of discussion into a separate space from content is among the worst offenders in this respect as that blocks one of the few escape routes for careful designers. Unless multi-way communication is embedded deeply into everything, as it is here on the Landing, then there is not even the saving grace of being able to see emergent cultural behaviours to soften and refine the hegemonies of a teacher-dominated system.

Like McDonald’s, all of this makes it far more likely that you’ll get a bland salty burger than haute cuisine or healthy food.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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