Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Students are Not Customers Redux, Now With More Links

My previous post about students not being customers has generated a lot of discussion. I truly didn't realize that my point of view (that students are not customers, at least not in the classroom, and that framing them that way negatively impacts the student-teacher relationship) would be so controversial.

I wanted to explore some of the other discussions on this topic, so I've rounded up some of the conversations.

  • This letter from the Guardian features two students explaining why the model of "customer service" negatively impacts their ability to learn. (It also shows that this model is not a strictly American phenomenon.) 
The students use a variety of words to describe their most effective learning experiences: challenging, independent, collaborative, project partners. They focus repeatedly on the benefit of being seen as cooperative partners in their learning experience, and they give some concrete ways that viewing them as "customers" impedes that process. They explain that teachers will be less likely to give non-traditional or more difficult assignments if they know they are going to be assessed on how well students liked the activity rather than what they gained from it. They end with this:
Whatever the rhetoric surrounding independent learning, universities are currently pushing students into dependency through a focus on consumerism and a transmission and testing regime. Only by becoming learning partners will today's students really be satisfied.

  • This letter from a UMW student is another example of a student taking issue with being seen as a "customer." Chino Torres explains that students are not buying their degrees:
In choosing to attend UMW, I am not buying a degree. I am not even buying an education. I am changing myself, I am challenging myself and I am doing so with faculty that are not providing a product, but are leading me academically. They are leading me to capacities of knowledge and understanding that prepare me for what comes next in life.
Torres uses these concerns to further explain that a discourse that commodifies education dilutes its effectiveness.

  •  Over at The Transparent University, there's a post about this topic that explores the connection between for-profit institutions' marketing plans and the hijacking of the discourse surrounding education's purpose:
The fact is, the product that is higher education is one which varies in quality based on what the student brings to the table. On its face, this moves the student way past being a passive customer seeking a credential and towards a forward-thinking member of society.
This argument explains that shifting the model to a business one and treating students as "customers" puts all the focus on how students can take the "product" of their education and turn it into an immediate return on their investment in the form of a specific job as they leave the graduation stage. While, of course, we want our students to be employable and successful in their fields, we have to avoid following this path too far lest we lose sight of the fact than an education is not just job training; it is life training.

  • Professor Peter Vaill has a list of reasons students should not be seen as customers, ranging from the philosophical to the purely definitional. He explores the ways that applying a business model to education can diminish it:
The provider--the professor--is also growing and changing and becoming more discriminating, and so cannot be expected to regard the student in a fixed and unchanging way. On the other hand, once the conventional business has "figured out the customer," that view is practiced as long as possible. The conventional business does not want a lot of unplanned growth and change in either provider or receiver.
Adopting the language of a business model inevitably shifts the perspective of the entire purpose of teaching, and--as so many people are pointing out--that shift is not a productive one.

  •  The scope of that conversational shift is explored in this post by William Astore, someone with both military and college teaching experience. He comes to a similar conclusion about the broader impact of this rhetoric:
It's a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country's direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself -- and so your own limits and those of your country as well.

  • The Chronicle has a letter to the editor from learning technologies professor M.O. Thirunarayanan that takes a more balanced approach at examining this issue.  Thirunarayanan explains that students are customers of the college (and so we should focus on things like providing adequate parking and substantial technology), but that the customer-employee relationship does not extend to the classroom:
No, students are not my customers when they are in my classroom. Consumerism stops at my classroom door. When I teach an online course, consumerism stops when students log into my electronic classroom. When they enter my classroom I expect them to earn, not buy, their grades.
This letter again brings up an important issue in this customer-employee model. If students are customers buying a product, how can the instructor maintain grading standards? After all, the customer is always right, right?

  • Demonstrating that this is not a new debate, here's an academic article from 1997 that explores the same problem. They saw the customer model as a metaphor being used to discuss education (though it's a metaphor no longer; we're often told that students aren't like customers but are customers). Through a careful analysis of that metaphor with plenty of pedagogical references, the authors come to a similar conclusion as these other discussions: 
We would like truly to empower students, encouraging them to participate actively in an educational process that will be quite different and much better for their engagement. We envision a dynamic educational process that tries not only to connect with the real world but also to transform it. While preserving the legitimate province of faculty to serve as experts, we wish to further educational programs that include, entice and involve students.

Many saw my previous post as some attempt to alleviate my own responsibilities to serve students' needs. That was certainly not my intention or the way that I act out my profession. I strive to meet students' needs every day. I strive to meet them by planning engaging lessons, meeting with students individually, and constantly considering and honing my own abilities as a teacher. My complaint with the customer-employee model is not that it makes me work harder. I am not afraid of working hard.

My complaint with the customer-employee model is that I work hard because I care about my students as people, not as consumers. I teach because it gives my students skills that they can take into their lives, not just a profession that may or may not work out for them. I cannot teach my students all of the technical skills and technological advancements they will need for the world they are entering. My job as a teacher is not simply to deliver information that the students can then transform into a diploma. My job is to guide my students as they embark on critical thinking exercises, communicate in new and challenging situations, and question the world around them. My job is to provide an environment in which students can experiment, get feedback, and adjust. My job is to give students guidelines that translate into all of the spheres of their lives: personal, civic, professional, and academic.

My job is to facilitate the learning process.

I also want to add that I am not only saying this as a teacher, but also as a student. I would feel insulted and cheated to think that my teachers only view/have viewed me as a consumer coming to purchase a product while I have been viewing myself as an active participant in a collaborative process.

That, I think, is the key that's missing in the customer service model of education. Education is a process, not a product.

Photo: James F. Clay


  1. i've gotten behind and so haven't read the previous post & comments yet - but i'm also surprised to hear that "students aren't customers" is a controversial topic. I'm glad to see examples here of students arguing for how that would diminish their education because they're right; it would. as you point out, treating students as customers takes the process and exploration out of education. more ominously, that presents a slippery slope to higher education becoming a vehicle for delivering the status quo in the form of a product that is dictated by administration, delivered by "teachers," and swallowed by customers. in other words, the business model in the classroom eliminates critical thinking--which is the whole point of higher education in the first place. scary.
    also, i find it humorous that you apparently had some folks suggest you were shirking work by not treating your students as customers. delivering a product, including grades that were bought instead of earned, is way easier than engaging the true process of teaching as you've described it. by rejecting the customer model for students, you take a path more labor intensive, more worthy, and more necessary.

  2. Absolutely! I especially agree with the fear that turning education into a product removes critical thinking and turns us into a delivery system for the status quo. I was shocked to see so many people defending this rhetorical framework for education. I hope that my teachers haven't/don't view me as a customer because I would certainly feel cheated by that perspective.

  3. This is such an important topic. Thanks for defending education as a process!

  4. Your previous post said it all: you don't want your teacher to think of you as a customer, because that will mean your teacher is an undervalued employee who has to be polite to you but secretly hates you. The "smart people" quotes, though...meh. As far as I can tell, the main thing college instills in people who believe it's giving them "life training" and "capacities of knowledge and understanding" and teaching them how to "know thyself" is...a sense of superiority towards the non-college-educated.

  5. I think it definitely can smack of that elitism, especially when the people saying it imply (or outright state) that someone can't get that kind of fulfillment and self-knowledge in non-traditional educational paths or outside of the ivory tower.

    I absolutely do not believe that college is the only path to being an intelligent, fulfilled person. I do think, though, that it is a path to fulfillment (and it was certainly MY path to a much fuller, more engaging life). When we frame it as a commodity to be purchased, I think that we cut off a lot of the opportunities for it to fill that role, especially when that "customer service" model rears its head in the classroom.