Education is not a market, students are not our customers

The best of my teachers pushed my comfort zones and tested my ability to learn, stretching my imagination and my intellectual capacities, and emboldening me to be open to experimenting. The classroom as a site of experimentation and new learning however is increasingly becoming rare, ironically in a global environment that has latched on to the buzzwords of innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

An increasing threat globally to the spirit of education as experimentation and new learning is the reduction of education to the dictates of a homogeneous mass market.

A mass market-based logic conceptualizes education as a commodity measured on fairly homogeneous sets of criteria applied uncritically. Excellence, innovation, multiculturalism, global outlook—these are the buzzwords for most universities catering to a global market, with little room for differentiation. Each of these terms, excellence, innovation, multiculturalism, global outlook, otherwise admirable markers of aspiration, are increasingly measured in narrow ways through standardized metrics, paradoxically limiting the spaces for creative explorations and innovations.

One of the drawbacks of market-based thinking is its reduction of education to a narrow set of metrics that might not always be the best indicators of quality education. The value of education lies in the continued development of pedagogy and learning experiments that offer students opportunities to grow intellectually, hold them to high global standards, and give them ample scope for putting into practice the concepts learned in the classroom. Some or many of these experiments might push student expectations, push students to engage with new materials and new methods, and most importantly, push their comfort zones through debate and dialogue. 

Exposing students to the unfamiliar is a rare opportunity that education brings. Such learning however, is hindered when students start thinking of themselves as consumers who are purchasing education as a commodity. Cost-benefit analyses of any product are predicated upon an understanding of the metrics of quality, weighing these metrics, and then applying these metrics to the product or service being evaluated. To the extent that a student is in a classroom to learn, it is important to acknowledge that a student might not be fully aware of the various metrics of quality on which her or his learning ought to be evaluated. Similarly, to the extent that a student is simply concerned about her or his grades, he/she is unlikely to weigh heavily other metrics of quality beyond the ingredients that she/he considers are essential to securing a good grade.

Increasingly across the globe, education has been reduced to the principles of the market and students have been reduced to consumers. This reductionist approach to education as a consumer market has trained students well to conduct cost-benefit analyses in evaluating the value of a module mostly optimized in relationship to the grades to be secured, but has not really opened them up to exploring new opportunities, new thinking, and new ways of being.

Naturally in this environment, students want to figure out the best ways of scoring a good grade and the tools that would equip them to score a better grade. New experiments in the classroom and new methods of teaching may be intellectually challenging and uncertain, and thus not be seen as being of value to student learning as seen by the students. Moreover, students may refrain from experimenting as this might threaten the grade they are likely to receive in the classroom.

One area where such commoditization is in full display is in the prevalence of student feedback as a metric for evaluating the quality of instruction. To simply and solely rely on student feedback I argue reduces education to a form of customer service, where students are reduced to customers and teachers reduced to being service providers the sole objective of whose teaching is student satisfaction. The intellectual capacity of students, trained in to assess the value of a module in terms of its ability to deliver a better grade for them, is reduced to a set of narrowly defined expectations that are overly grade-based. Teachers, instead of seriously considering ways of challenging students to intellectually rigorous standards, are more concerned with gimmicks, performances, and strategies for holding student attention in 6-minute attention  capsules that would optimize their chances of securing a high student satisfaction score.

When I teach a graduate seminar, I expect my students to read approximately 300 to 500 pages of text. For my students, I am known to be a tough teacher with high expectations. However, the 300 to 500 pages of readings I believe form the fundamentals for each week of concept covered in the module. This is the standard I held my graduate students to when I taught at Purdue University and I expect no less from my students at the National University of Singapore. Now to cater to student feedback and to reduce the amount of reading load because the students are having difficulty coping will not serve the learning objectives of the module. Instead, I see my role as working with each student to see how best they can reach their potential, meeting the high expectations in the module, and reaching the global standards of what it means to be an excellent communication scholar.

Similarly, when I teach an exposure module to communications and new media, I expect my students to go out into the community, conduct and interview members of the public, transcribe the interview, and write up a report on the basis of analyzing the interview, incorporating the analytic frames into the theories covered thus far in the module. The interaction with the community I believe is a key element of learning communication, taking the student out of the ivory tower and into possibilities of interactions with community members. Also, the interview as an assignment, teaches the students to ask questions and to listen, two fundamental tools of effective communication.

To expect any less from my students would not do them justice in the long run as it would not really give them a flavor of what it is like to engage in learning about communication and practicing it. As a teacher with their best interests in mind and based on my experiences in teaching students for almost two decades, I make the call that learning to conduct an interview is an integral component of the pedagogical objectives of an exposure communication module.

To the extent that I want to cater my teaching to the student feedback, I know that removing the assignment will lead to a higher score from my students. This however, in my opinion, will not serve the best interests of my students as it would not equip them with some fundamental communication skills. I also believe that if we are to continue being one of the exemplar communication departments in the world, we ought to expect the very best from our students and subject them to the highest of global standards in practicing communication. A student evaluation-centric approach to teaching can become a way for catering to the least common denominator. However, where my student evaluation comes in handy is in telling me that I need to do a better job communicating course expectations and communicating to them why I have included the particular assignment.

To the extent that Universities start relying on student evaluations as the sole metric of faculty performance, Universities are in trouble. The best of learning takes place in an environment that supports student learning, is open to difference and experimentation, and nurtures faculty in developing the most meaningful ways of contributing to learning. By not treating students as consumers of a homogeneously packaged product, university teachers can consider the ways in which they can encourage students to be critical thinkers, explore new horizons, and take up difficult and creative challenges.


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