Students as Customers: Dealing w/Expectations

Students as Customers: Dealing w/Expectations

"Students as Customers" is not an either-or proposition. In fact, matriculants to higher education have multiple roles: they are students, AND customers, AND performers, AND products. Dealing with student expectations requires acknowledging the multiple roles of students, as well as the multiple wants and needs of other stakeholders.

Dealing with Student Expectations

What is optimal student satisfaction? At first glance this may seem like an easy question to answer: the more satisfied the students, the better. In reality, however, to some extent there is a fundamental contradiction between maximizing student satisfaction and providing the best possible learning experience. Some of this is due to practical constraints such as limited resources or the law of diminishing returns; it may not be cost-effective or practical to increase student satisfaction from, say, 95% to 98% in some cases. Even more relevant are the various gaps between the wants and needs of the major stakeholders: students, faculty, institution, employers and parents.

The concept of student satisfaction is often perceived as focused primarily on student wants (imagine a single circle representing the universe of student wants). On its most basic level, the notion of the "student as customer" has the same focus, as expressed by such statements as "the customer is king" or "the customer is always right." To the extent that satisfying students means giving them what they want, this conception is accurate.

However, students do not always know what they want, and there are gaps between their wants and needs (imagine two circles that don't quite overlap). Thus there is a gap between providing students what they want (which presumably leads to maximum satisfaction) and providing them what they need (which may reduce reported satisfaction, at least in the short term). This gap can be closed to some extent by attempting to create educated consumers, i.e., students who learn to want what they need, but this does not address the issue entirely because there are other stakeholders in the learning process with their own wants and perceptions of students' needs.

Many higher education practitioners, faculty in particular, contend that what students should not always be given what they think they want, at least in some areas. Proponents of this view point to situations which suggest that simply giving students what they say they want often descends into pandering, such as instances where tying faculty performance evaluation to student satisfaction surveys has resulted in grade inflation and lowered academic standards in classroom courses. These observers contend that learners bear some of the responsibility for their own satisfaction because a certain level of performance is expected from them, and that the learning performance process can be inherently difficult, even painful, or otherwise not conducive to maximizing reported student satisfaction. This view also presumes that students do not always know what they want or what is best for them. However, it also implies that other parties -- faculty, the institution, employers, parents -- do know what is best for students. Inevitably, then, there are also gaps between students' wants and needs and those of the other stakeholders in the process. The more one considers these gaps, the less clear the picture becomes (now picture multiple circles, none of which quite overlap).

The issue of what to focus on becomes important when considering how to deal with student expectations and the resulting impact on student satisfaction. Online learning programs face a host of decisions about the extent to which they need to meet student expectations relative to instruction, technology use, student services, and many other areas. Some cases are primarily a question of expectations management, for instance training students to expect a reasonable instructor response time to online communications. In other cases, for instance provision of online student services, institutions appear to have much less control over student demand than the term "expectations management" implies.

There is a growing awareness of this gap and increased efforts to treat the student as customer. Program and student services administrators seem more inclined to accept "student as customer" as an "exact" or sufficient descriptor of the student role, while faculty tend to view students as more than just customers and often perceive the customer role as much less relevant to the instructional process. So perhaps it is useful to differentiate between students' roles as learner and as consumer of student services: students are more clearly customers in the latter case with more closely aligned wants and needs, while the role of student as learner is more of a balancing act between student and institutional wants, needs, and responsibilities.

Practice standards such as those created by ADEC, NEA, and others are useful tools for meeting and managing student expectations since they identify many of the areas where gaps are likely to occur as well as recommended practices for dealing with them. Many institutions are either following these recommended practices or developing their own, resulting in numerous new practices for meeting and managing student expectations in a wide variety of areas, for instance specifying instructor response protocols to online communication with students, or monitoring and continuously improving help desk operations, or providing online registration.

At the same time, many institutions are reporting a struggle with rising student expectations regarding the provision of online instruction and student services. On the instructional side, there is evidence of a possible disconnect between faculty and student technology use. A Pew Internet and American Life project reports that teens are becoming so "Net-savvy" that they report a "substantial disconnect" between how they use the internet outside of school and how they use it in the classroom. Teens use the Internet to multi-task -- instant message (IM), reserve books at the library, order online, participate in an online quiz or games, and they are frustrated that teachers don't use the web more effectively. A July 2002 Pew survey indicates that 78% of teens 12-17 go online, suggesting a possible huge disconnect coming up the pipeline as these students enter college. ..

On the student services side, some online services, for instance online registration, bookstore ordering, or library research and document retrieval, are proving to be far superior to the previous level of service and convenience provided in person. This, coupled with students' increasing Net-savviness, perhaps explains the rapid rise in student expectations regarding provision of online student services that some institutions are reporting. These consumer expectations are shaping institutional direction at least to some extent, as some of these same institutions often report that they have no choice but to dedicate resources and launch new technologies to offer a comprehensive array of student services online in response to student demand. In a 2002 EDUCAUSE survey polling members about their most pressing information technology-related challenges, respondents rated administrative system/enterprise resource planning (ERP) as the primary issue for institutions to resolve for strategic success. Online student services was another top concern in this area and was rated in the top five issues in terms of potential to become even more significant in the coming year...

[note: these are excerpts from a paper co-written by myself and Joeann Humbert at RIT, "Student Satisfaction with Online Learning: An Expanding Universe," in "Elements of Quality Online Education: Practice and Direction", Volume 4 in the Sloan-C Series. Needham, MA: Sloan-C, 2003.]