Adventures in Learning

Is the Student a Customer ?

Is The Customer King in Education?

Over the years, there has been a continued debate inside schools about being « customer centric ». The emergence of customer engagement models, customer satisfaction methods, experience management, and other approaches has pushed schools to look at the learner as a customer.

Hospitals are also increasingly looking at the patient as a customer. According to the The Institute for Healthcare Excellence,

Having a customer mindset will create an environment where we truly serve patients and meet their total needs.

This « total customer » concept leads us to consider the larger experience

  • What is the customer/learner experience?
  • What drives customer/learner satisfaction?
  • What is the total experience (including non academic activities and resources)?
  • How can we personalize the learning experience to make it more meaningful?
  • How can we integrate customer/learner needs into course design and implementation?

All of these are valid questions. But can we consider education as a service like any other service?

The fear of many faculty is that learner « satisfaction » measured by « happy face » reviews takes precedence over academic rigor (a separate post on the dangers of happy face evaluations will follow). This concern of clientélisme results in a dysfunction of the pedagogical and learning process :

  • Faculty will want course evaluations to take place BEFORE a key component of learning takes place – namely the feedback on assessment. (Low grades may result in faculty receiving low evaluations from students « getting back » at the professor)
  • Grades risk on being inflated, giving a false understanding of mastery.
  • The « fun » factor drives the learning design with rigor and conceptualization being less important.

In addition schools may lose sight of the « learner » and start focusing more on the « customer » or the « customer’s parents » comfort needs. The result ? Increased expenditures on student restaurants, bars, fitness centers, etc.  And while investing in student well-being is important, it should not be more important than attracting excellent professors or spending money on pedagogy (modern classrooms, learning resources, IT,..). If people start enrolling only for the quality of the pool, the number of machines in the fitness center or the free coffee..things may have run astray.

What is really BEST for the learner? Does the learner understand what he/she doesn’t understand?

The same is true in healthcare. What happens when the well being of the patient is not aligned with short term customer satisfaction. Consider the point of view on one physician Russel Saunders:

Others say focusing too narrowly on whether a patient is happy can also lead to potential harms. The role of a physician is to make appropriate medical decisions, and sometimes those decisions conflict with patient requests, said a New England pediatrician who blogs under the pseudonym Dr. Russell Saunders.

It’s not uncommon for people to ask for medications, expensive or invasive tests and other care they don’t ultimately need. Acquiescing to those demands can put patients at risk for unnecessary harm, Saunders said. “When the primary focus is customer satisfaction, you may overlook the fact that sometimes appropriate medical care can mean the patient will leave unhappy with the decision.”

The Learner is King – but in MY castle.

In my opinion, we need to create a larger « stakeholder » understanding of the learner. In some respects, the learner is a service customer – he/she pays for numerous services – participate in class, career services, extra-curricular services, etc. The emergence of « student services » offices shows that the experience of the student is taking center stage.

But the student is also an investor.  He/She is investing in their future. The student has a stake in the success of the investment and its ROI.  Do students understand that focusing on short term « happy faces » may be detrimental to long term image of the institution and their degree? Do they understand that long term ROI may be measured by something other than « I recommend this class to others » – measured the last day of class?

The student is also a future alumnus, and decisions we take as educators need to consider the long-term well being of the student, past students and the institution. Yes, giving a passing grade may make the student happy in the short-run – but is it the best thing to do for the future of the student, other alumni and the institution?  Acting in the best interest of the student’s long-term well being may be in contradiction to what he/she wants right now.

If decisions are made in the short-term interest of a small group or one stakeholder, we may find we are letting the castle go to ruin.

Moving Forward

Her are three action points that can be starting points. I’m sure you have others.

  1. Take a larger stakeholder view of the student. Yes, the student is a learner – but also a customer, an investor, a future alum, etc. Decision making on our castle needs to consider the different stakeholder perspectives the « student » represents. Accepting that the student can be considered as a customer open up our minds to a larger customer/learner experience.. BUT also consider the learner as a co-investor, a future member of the alumnus, etc.
  2. Require evaluation of the learning experience by the learner. However, the learner must evaluate all elements of the experience (personal contribution, peer contribution, etc.) This evaluation should take place after the last assessment of the learner and feedback on the assessment has been done. Again, feedback is a critical element of learning and must be assessed for quality. Finally, make sure there is a clear and « fair » system for use of the evaluations in faculty review (procedural justice is critical).  Identifying outliers or cases of students simply being mean should be removed from the analysis.
  3. Make students a KEY actor (co-investor) in the learning design and improvement process  and not AFTER everything is over.  Integrate students continuously in the learning design, giving them more and more choice and « say » in the activities to be undertaken. Student Voice in learning is a critical factor in developing learner motivation. (Check our the great resources available from Students at the Center on motivation, engagement and student voice).

The final word

So are students customers? Sure they are. But they are also co-investors, co-owners, future alumni, etc.  Taking a narrow point of view of a complex relationship may be detrimental.  As educators our responsibility is to consider the wider role of the key stakeholder we often call « the student » and make sure the Castle is dedicated and able to delivering the highest quality education both today and in the future.




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