Published on 2014/03/21

Students as Customers: Time for Educators to Get On Board

Students as Customers: Time for Educators to Get On Board
Treating students as customers enhances the learning environment while ensuring students are better served.
The simple fact that a degree program is offered online does not mean it’s truly student-friendly or designed to effectively meet the needs of the busy working adult. Yet that doesn’t stop some institutions from positioning their programs that way.

More and more institutions, including non-profits, are spending millions of dollars to let huge numbers of potential students know they offer “flexible” and “tailored” programs built to fit their busy schedules. To get this message across, institutions are using sophisticated marketing platforms to deliver personalized messaging to attract new enrollment. Institutions leverage best-of-breed technologies to treat prospective students like customers to be acquired prior to their enrollment, so why aren’t more using equally sophisticated technology to deliver the education in truly “flexible” and “tailored” ways?

Most online learning management systems are still asynchronous and mostly one-way. Online course-based resources and media are often loosely aligned with the curriculum and are far from being interactive and personalized. While the sophistication of educational technology is slow to improve on a broad scale, more and more institutions are using marketing tools that can deliver behavior-based communications and adjust, in real time, to the anticipated needs of the prospective student. If we invest so much in motivating the student prior to enrollment, we should leverage that technology to drive the same level of engagement and motivation in the student learning experience.

Perhaps the lack of progress in incorporating these technologies stems from traditional instructors’ belief that automated communications couldn’t possibly match the value of faculty interaction. But it’s not about replacing faculty; it’s about enhancing the learning experience in alignment with faculty efforts.

Automating services and communication provides students with efficiency related to administrative and tedious tasks associated with their educational experience so they can focus on what educators agree is most important: learning. Further, faculty would be able to focus on the delivery of instruction where it is needed most, rather than leaving the students’ ability to receive and process course content to chance. Adaptive learning technologies, for example, are popping up in a variety of major educational systems as a way to adjust the learning experience to the needs of the individual student in real time, in a highly scalable way.

The online environment presents educators with a vastly enhanced insight into the behavior and needs of the students served. Whether we call it customer service or enhanced learning, it’s clearly what’s best for students and their education. Breaking down the silos that exist between marketing professionals and academics will open the opportunity for bidirectional communication and data utilization that can both inform the effectiveness of marketing and enhance the learning experience through to students’ program completion.

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Readers Comments

Helen C 2014/03/21 at 9:59 am

I see where Maslowsky is coming from, but would caution against seeing students only as customers. A customer service mentality might be useful for front-line, administrative staff, but this type of service imperative shouldn’t make its way into the classroom. It could become an issue when a student or “customer” comes to expect a certain thing, in other words, when he or she adopts the attitude that “I paid for it so I should get x.” The style, format and content of learning should always lie primarily within the instructor’s purview.

    Alicia Ramos 2014/03/22 at 2:35 am

    I disagree. A customer service mentality in the classroom isn’t necessarily about placating the student. It’s about seeing how learning works from the student’s perspective and seeing if there’s a way to improve it. Such is the objective of adaptive learning technologies and strategies.

    Terri 2014/03/25 at 11:38 pm

    I agree! When students are seen as customers who have an unfettered right to what they want rather than as students who should feel privileged to have been accepted and need to earn their credits, there is a danger of dumbing down the curriculum so no one can fail. At Excelsior, for example, the literature department added 2 courses on Zombies in Literature and Vampires in Literature which feature poorly written erotica and poorly written young adult books that professional writers have dissed. In Humanities, they have a new course based on playing computer games!

Ellen Finkelstein 2014/03/22 at 12:17 pm

In my limited experience, online courses have been about as customized as on-site courses. That is, students can ask the professor questions and get answers. If a student isn’t doing well or falling behind, the professor will contact the student and try to help. Maybe what you say is true of very large online courses, but at smaller institutions (again in my experience), the faculty use pretty much the same techniques on-site and online in terms of reaching out to students.

Tatiana 2014/03/22 at 3:53 pm

I have a hard time with the word “customer”. Students are NOT customers, they’re learners, pupils. Too many students (and their parents) have the attitude that they’re customers because they paid, and therefore they (or their child) is entitled to an A, regardless of the fact that the child did not come to class all semester, didn’t do the work, didn’t take the exams or failed the exams. But because he paid, none of that matters.

Students are customers when they purchase textbooks at the bookstore, when they buy their meals. They’re not customers when they fill out the application for admission and pay the fee; paying the application fee does NOT entitle them to admission.

Mel E 2014/03/25 at 9:07 am

As a student, I must respectfully disagree with you Tatiana. While you make a good point that students don’t deserve good grades simply because they pay tuition, you have overlooked the crux of the issue.

In the classroom, I understand that I am a student, and I am subject to the rules of the professor. However, outside of the classroom (and especially during the admissions process) I expect to be treated like a customer.

After being accepted to two prestigious institutions I was on the fence about where to attend—until I experienced the customer service. One institution was friendly and answered all of my questions quickly. The other institution acted as though I was bothering them and made it clear my business didn’t matter. Can you guess where I enrolled?

To hide behind ‘academic integrity’ and to refuse to provide your students with good service and a pleasant experience is to undersell the value of your institution and to miss out on many potential and (and academically suitable) students.

Karen 2014/03/25 at 9:06 pm

Growth and change in higher education have left us with what I believe is a false either/or kind of argument. Educators and institutions can be flexible, friendly, and responsive to student needs without wholly adopting a student as customer mindset. An admissions office that fails to show concern for students before and after they’ve paid fees is failing as a part of the educational process. By taking on the language of customer service, and encouraging students to do the same, institutions have created the unfortunate grades-for-cash dynamic as well as dropped the classical role of the college/university–a hub for knowledge and exploration as well as personal and professional growth.

Creating ever more individualized and flexible online courses is an issue of adult learning theory and perhaps staff development. True, marketing departments and teaching departments need to meet around issues of promises vs. delivery, but to limit the conversation to the concept of “customer service” is an over simplification.

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