Friday, February 12, 2016

Are College Students Customers?

I'm writing this blog post in response to Students are not customers; Are they?. I actually have a fairly simple view of this issue. The student sitting in front of me today is not my customer. The person that student will be in 5-50 years is my customer. From the student perspective, education is an investment in your future self. From the college perspective, alumni are the real test of whether or not the college is doing what it should. Alumni who are successful in life benefit the University in many ways, going well beyond their financial support.

Taking this viewpoint, my goal is not to make my current students happy. My goal is to equip them for later success in life. I want to make certain that when they graduate, they are have the skills to enter the workforce and do what they are hoping to do. That isn't going to happen if I coddle them and give everyone good grades. It means that I need to challenge them, but support them. I get to spent time with my students and come to know them. I can gauge how much assistance different students need to master the material. I need to impart to them the knowledge and skills that I think will put them ahead of others in the workforce when the first enter. I also need to try to develop their ability to teach themselves so that they will continue to learn through their careers so that they can keep themselves relevant.

I appreciate the small, liberal arts setting that I teach in, because I think that it really allows me to do what is best for my students. It also forces my students to pick up the other skills that they will need to know for their future, that I'm probably not the ideal person to teach. I stress to prospective students and occasionally to current students how important communication skills and critical thinking are going to be in their careers. I focus mostly on teaching them how to break down problems and communicate the solution method to a computer to make the computer solve the problems. The successful alumnus isn't going to just sit in front of a computer and code all day for 40 years after graduation. They should advance to being team leads, managers, even vice presidents and CTOs. Those jobs also require knowing how to communicate with humans in both written and spoken form. Many of my current students don't like that they have to take a bunch of courses outside of CS, but the people that I think of as our customers, the future selves of these students, inevitably come to appreciate the breadth of their education as much as they appreciate the rigors of the technical aspects of my personal instruction.

As a final benefit of this approach to "students as customers", I get to tell students who do complain about courses being hard (with a hint of sarcasm) that I am just looking out for their future selves. If I have to tear down the current version to build a better one, then so be it. ;)

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