What Can Traditional Higher Ed Learn From Hamburger U?

As colleges move into online education, they’re finding themselves in learning mode. And as they do their homework on how to set up and run their online programs, some colleges are even looking to other sectors, like the corporate trainings that big companies run for their employees online.

That raises the question: Can traditional colleges learn anything from the likes of Hamburger U, McDonald’s famous inhouse training system?

That issue came up when EdSurge sat down with Donna Kidwell, who is the chief technology officer of Arizona State University’s EdPlus, which coordinates much of the online education done by the university. It turns out she has experience working at a corporate online university—not in fast food but in the real estate business. And she has brought her insights from that experience to her work in higher education.

This conversation took place a few months ago, during the ASU GSV summit in San Diego, during an EdSurge Live interview series we did at the event.

Listen here, or read highlights below, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: In a past job, you worked at a corporate virtual university—in the real-estate sector. What did you learn from that experience that you bring to your work in higher education?

Donna Kidwell: Back in 2003, real estate was a crazy market. I was at Keller Williams Realty, which was a small regional player. They were in a few states and they were growing like crazy. They were effectively bringing in somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 agents a month into the franchise. They were opening 12 new franchises a month. If you buy a franchise, you’re essentially taking on a business model. That’s what you’re actually getting. You’re adopting their practices. Think McDonald’s Hamburger University—but of course completely different products.

This was a franchise that was growing faster than any other real estate franchise, with the exception of Warren Buffett. Berkshire Hathaway is not a bad company to be in league with. But Gary Keller, [the company’s founder,] was writing books. He was essentially going after it through education.

"The question is what can we learn from one another as institutions? That’s one of the ironies, that it’s hard to learn if you’re in a learning institution."
—Donna Kidwell, chief technology officer of Arizona State University’s EdPlus

In fact, when I first started working for him, I was saying something about not having been in real estate and being new to it. He stopped me, and he’s like, "No. We’re an education company."

It took me a while to understand what that really meant. What he really wanted from his online university was, when people came into the franchise, they immediately started getting something they could learn and use.

Today, when we talk about just-in-time education, we want learners to be able to access an experience that is exactly what they need, and that is relevant to where they want to go. This was the bread and butter of what he wanted to do.

By 2006, we had built his online university.

So it’s not just a binder anymore for running a franchise. I’m kind of picturing what I imagine it was like in the old days?

Right. And [we figured out] that what people really wanted was to be able to learn from the innovators inside the system. They wanted to be able to access and hear from experts who really had mastered whatever it was—whatever marketing campaign philosophy or strategy. Personal stories grounded in a real principle—something they could then take as a tool into their business and run with.

But I thought, if you could do this in real estate, could you do it in engineering? Could you do it in nursing? Could you do it in a greater body of knowledge? If you were going to try to do that, what would that look like? Where would you go?

The McCombs Business School is in Austin had a degree that was specifically in the technology commercialization space. I thought, “This is it.” So I went there and incubated what it would look like to translate that model into a university setting. It took about 7 or 8 years of tinkering and figuring out higher ed and how administrators think, and how to motivate faculty to be really engaged in a process like this. In a lot of ways ASU and the philosophies that ASU has toward the kinds of things we do with Starbucks or an Uber, for me are very logical pathway. It feels like a very logical road.

Can you talk about an example of something that you’ve tried at EdPlus that comes from that experience?

One of the first things that we started looking at is our technology ecosystem for serving these learners. Because of course they were delivering courses to 40,000 students already.

I think we’ve got 50 new academic programs that we’re rolling out this year. That’s a lot. From a peer awareness standpoint, how do you even help learners that either have had an ASU experience before or who might be interested in one?

The one thing that I took away from my Keller Williams experience was how extremely powerful it was to have well-thought-out educational experiences. Not just training, but educational experiences that were relevant and that someone could then immediately use—and how that made them hungry to come back.

If you own your own franchise and you’ve got a population that’s going to listen to you, you can make those rules and that works really well.

In higher ed, those things aren’t that obvious. Our relationship with textbook publishers makes it complicated to try to scale courses when you want to do something like ASU’s Earned Admission program, where we are making courses available through the global freshman academy. And those are available for free. You’re investing your time and trying to figure out whether or not this experience will work. We’re investing our time and creating courses that fit a model like that.

So these are very entrenched systems that, when we talk about trying to revolutionize, kind of get in our way.

I think all of these institutions need more avenues for sharing parts of the model. There are pieces of what we’re doing at ASU that will work in Texas, where I’ve just come from, and then there are pieces that won’t. Because our policy is different. Our structures are different. And that’s okay. The question is what can we learn from one another as institutions? That’s one of the ironies, that it’s hard to learn if you’re in a learning institution.

What are some best practices universities should think about that you’re seeing elsewhere in the world?

Scandinavia has a very healthy attitude toward bringing different stakeholders to the table when they do program development. There’s a very deliberate expectation that program design would include a kind of conversation around what they call the “local industry clusters.”

The clusters are funded by the government and focus on areas of knowledge expertise that are important in the region. The region may have a cluster for digital education and digital entrepreneurs. They may have a cluster that’s specifically about process engineering or on marine science. Those companies locally are really focused in. And the government is supporting the clusters, who then work to kind of create this ecosystem of workforce development and policy. We don’t have anything quite like that here.

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