Students: Customers, Clients Or Collaborators?
Not all academics are happy to see their students referred to as ‘customers’. They have a point. The role of college lecturers is to ensure that their students gain the knowledge and skills required to take them further in their chosen fields. The ‘student as customer’ model is incomplete, if only because teaching staff inevitably know more about the chosen field than do learners. Along with the actual knowledge required, there may be scope to look afresh at the skills base students need – and at the implications of that for the ‘consumer’ status of students.
Edward Snyder, Dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, is vexed about the notion of students as ‘customers’. In an article published by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, he writes:
‘Do we really want to tell them [students] that they are customers – and that they are always right – when we [post-graduate tutors] are in the last, best position to influence their overall academic, ethical and professional development?’
An important question
Prof Snyder asks an important question here – and it applies at least as much to pre-university and undergraduate students as it does to his very high fliers.
I recall one particularly demanding group of college students (all
groups, as any teacher will tell you, have their own signature character and dynamic) who informed me very early on in their course that they didn’t want to ‘do’ a given part of the syllabus because it was ‘boring’.
My riposte – that they were on an externally prescribed and examined course, so were going to have to get on with it, and they could tell me their views again when they had completed that part of the syllabus – left some of them genuinely puzzled. It had never occurred to them that choices and judgements are best made on the basis of direct experience, not just hearsay or even less. For optimum results, you can’t just pick’n’mix college education as you might your Saturday grocery shopping.
An extra dimension
The student – tutor interaction can never just be that of customer
– salesperson; though it might sometimes be described as client – professional (for instance, when the learning is by overt mutual consent very focused and directed).
Usually, however, the learner – teacher relationship should be that of collaborator – facilitator, within a context of guidance and the tutor’s expertise in the field being studied. This should ideally include encouragement by that tutor of efforts by the students to collaborate with each other (and, if possible, with more experienced practitioners) to explore the wider meanings and skills which lie behind the subject in question.
Beyond that, there may also, by mutual consent, be a role for tutors as their students’ professional mentor and / or coach.
There is a challenge here. It is relatively easy to evaluate
‘customer satisfaction’ and to respond to what one learns as a provider from such evaluation.
It is more difficult to measure the impact and future value of collaboration and skills development. But that is what adult students often require, just as much as younger learners.
The question is, how is this complex interactional ‘contract’ best negotiated between students and teachers, at a time when we are all encouraged from a very early age to see ourselves just as customers, selecting at whim what we will or will not ‘consume’?
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