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.

  • I think one of the inherent problems is the belief that knowledge acquisition especially in a tertiary undergraduate context is mainly a priori – knowledge which exists independent of experience; that knowledge is there to be consumed and that all argumentation relates merely to an understanding of the attributes and properties that constitute that knowledge. In order to simulate a posteriori argumentation you need to set up the validity of empirical evidence. So it goes back to the ancient debate about what knowledge really is – does one adopt a post structuralist stance where knowledge is always separate from experience, constantly in flux and emergent or is it the more ontological argument which states that knowledge always develops from a place of being. `being’ or `becoming’ If context is attributable to experience then aren’t you already assuming an a posteriori stance for a system which is teneted upon a priori thinking and pedagogy? Just a thought…

    • Thanks for commenting, Polly. I can see that we’d need quite some time to sort out our epistemological differences, but in general I do agree that students are more comfortable with the “myth of the given”, and that pedagogy has to be responsive to that. But in my experience they have been able to accommodate both the a priori and the a posteriori, without having to lead them into the thickets of meta-conversations in epistemology. I struggle to get philosophy students to go there, never mind business students! But here, I’m simply making the limited claim that knowing where to look is a good first step to finding an answer.

  • Signe

    Of course the other assumption you’re working on is that all customers do their research before purchase. I doubt the world of commodity goods would thrive as much as it does if that were actually the case (retailers must count on people making ill-considered and unnecessary purchases).

  • My biggest concern in this case would be that someone considered “bright” enough to attend University (and presumably to study Economics) had to be nudged in the right direction to consider asking the Economics Department a question about an Economics module.
    Where does this bewildering attitude end?
    Does this person head to Standard Bank because their cellphone stops working? Or to a picture-framing business because they have developed an irritating sore in an embarrassing and personal region?
    Your rights versus responsibilities point refers: if University is to educate an individual how to be an adult as much as how to excel in their area of study, surely one can only be spoonfed for so long?

  • Student

    Obviously the kind of half-wit question you received in your anonymous forum are not appreciated because it shows that the student has not put in little or no effort to find out for themselves. I would think that your course of action was probably the best and I would most likely respond the same, if at all.

    However there are some things which I do not agree with.

    Going to the economics department to find a piece of information is not efficient for the following reasons:

    1) 2 flights of steps from ground level, perhaps even a walk from the other side of campus through pedestrian congestion and in summer heat.
    2) queue at the reception
    3) unfriendly staff working the desks. (not surprising, they have most uninspiring jobs having to deal with a lot of spoilt/demanding “commerce kids” from 9 to 5)

    The student is obviously new to Vula and by “fishing” for an easy response in any number of random forums was probably the most efficient first solution to getting information, as making these kinds of posts (especially in your anonymous setting) is costless even if the probability of a quality response is low.

    Not all is lost: this student has probably learned quickly – no fellow student or course administrator is going to take the 10 seconds needed to copy and paste a link to the course outline for them(spoonfeeding). They will be forced to learn the tough bureaucratic lessons of the inefficient UCT Administration System or exploit some other means of information gathering for example: friends, peers or talking to strangers.

    I remember my first days at UCT, completely bewildered:

    “I get to make up my own timetable!?”
    “Whats a Faculty Handbook?”
    “Where is LS2D? Is that the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test venue?”
    “What are courses?”
    “Who is going to tell me where to go?”
    “Why haven’t I got a detention for sitting on these glorious steps all day?”
    “Should I buy more chicken burgers or that Accounting textbook” 🙂

    Since I didn’t have any friends taking the same degree, I had to find out all this information the hard way: harass/stalk/track down as many random students/staff/professors as needed to find the necessary information. I still have blisters on my feet to prove it 😛

    So yes – students should do their goddamn research! Just a pity the “system” is set up to encourage so many pathetic/annoying attempts.

    Also, I agree with your observation on schools not encouraging the right mentalities: “why they should bother to understand it at all, what the purpose of that knowledge is, what it leads to, etc.”.

    Headmaster : “Kids you must just BELIEVE their is a god and respect others for doing so, but everything else, only logical reasoning can help you”
    Kids: “why I am not allowed to question the faith”
    Headmaster : “Detention!!!”

    You Said : “including the underlying assumption that information is only available online”

    Information should be available online primarily and FIRST! Think of the man hours this would save, I can only assume this is the reason why you praise Vula. Why doesn’t the Eco’s Dept have a Vula portal?! – This seems really obvious to me as not only would they need less staff to man the reception but the various department receptions sometimes possess information which can only be found out by physically visiting the dept – put it on the web already!!

    If your still interested in this topic let me know what you think, it would be interesting to get a lecturers perspective, ie has Vula saved you time or made more of a meal ito course administration etc. Also your thoughts on the efficiencies of finding out information at UCT – have I missed somthing?

    • Hi “Student”, thanks for dropping by. Vula has in general saved plenty of time, especially in terms of tutorial registration and the ease with which notes and announcements can be posted. But it certainly has not solved the fundamental problem, which is that students seem to operate on the assumption that information will reach them somehow, without them having to look for it. To some extent, Vula is just another noticeboard which they don’t look at.

      As far as information dissemination in general at UCT goes, I’ll leave that for another day – hopefully tomorrow.