If students are customers, why don’t they do their research?

A discussion I have each semester with new students is whether they consider themselves to be customers or not. The distinction I’m trying to get them to grapple with is that as students, they are themselves a key determinant of how good the “product” ends up being. In other words, they cannot just place their orders and all expect to get the same result in terms of knowledge acquired. While there are certainly some aspects of the relationship between educators and students that are analogous to suppliers and customers, it’s an incredibly poor model to base one’s academic interactions on, as it encourages passivity on the part of the student, as well as a mindset which focuses on the student’s rights, rather than their responsibilities.

The teaching semester starts on Monday next week, and I’m again reminded of how little agency some entering students bring to the relationship. Take this example: my course has an online learning environment (the excellent Vula, built on the open-source Sakai platform). One of the modules I’ve enabled allows for students to post questions and answers anonymously, which caters well for those situations in which students are perhaps afraid of confessing to ingnorance in some respect – very useful given the viciousness of some peer-interactions. A question posted last week asked “where is the information on eco1010F or dont they have anything?”. For context, note that ECO1010F is not my course, and this online portal has nothing to do with that course. Less than 2 hours later, the student asked “please can someone answer my question on ECO1010F??”.

I responded: “I’m not sure why you think anyone here can help. Perhaps ask at the Economics Department?”, to which s/he replied “The reason i asked here is because the eco dept dont have a site so how can i ask them then????? but ill probably get more help if i went direct to the department!!!!”. There are various interesting things going on here – including the underlying assumption that information is only available online – but the point of today’s post is to highlight the inefficiencies that result from not looking in the right places for answers.

Part of knowledge-acquisition is an awareness of context. The second post from this student indicates that s/he was eager to get an answer, and to get the answer needed, it was clearly optimal to ask the Economics Department, seeing as the question involved an Economics course. Instead, the student spent (at least) those two hours feeling helpless. Why? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that students are not encouraged to ask the right questions, in that most of their questions during schooling have been in the pursuit of clarifying something they don’t understand, rather than meta-questions regarding why they should bother to understand it at all, what the purpose of that knowledge is, what it leads to, etc. In other words, they assume they are being offered a product, and their investigations start and end with understanding what that product is. Their investigations seldom involve whether it’s the right product, or indeed whether they should consider it a product at all.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.