Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What students like

A news story caught my eye the other day about student preferences for online versus in-person class lectures. Interesting, I suppose, but it leaves me wondering, "So what?"

What students like has no business driving what institutions provide. I don't mean to suggest that student preferences can or should be entirely ignored; to quote Derek Bok in Beyond the Ivory Tower, "Students do not have much power to initiate policy directly. Nevertheless, they do exert considerable influence on policy - not so much by collective action but by their ability not to attend institutions they do not like and to force changes in curriculum and teaching methods by the slow, silent pressure of apathy and disapproval."

However, students are not customers but clients, which is a crucial distinction. Customers buy whatever they want, and sellers rush to provide it. Clients, on the other hand, may request things that are bad for them, but the service provider has a professional obligation not to provide it. Consider attorneys: They ought not break the law if that's the only way to get their clients off. Nevertheless, having contractually obligated to provide services, they ought to follow through to the best of their abilities. That's why one hires an attorney; he or she is supposed to know better than I do what the situation calls for. Attorneys that don't have a hard time finding clients.

Education professionals similarly owe their students what they have contracted to provide, which may vary by institution. (Perhaps it is training in how to do a certain job; perhaps it is to build character while teaching a variety of cognitive skills.) What drives the choice of teaching technologies should be "what works," not what students enjoy. Student enjoyment only delimits the choices - to those that don't cause students to drop out or fail to enroll in the first place. Student enjoyment may also have a place where technological choices are equally effective. In between these two extremes, questions of convenience and taste are beside the point.

1 comment:

Corey Bunje Bower said...

unless what students enjoy influences what works