Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Students as Customers

This is an update from an earlier post I had written about the concept of students as customers. Some schools openly refer to students as customers; it seems to start with HR, move to the administration, and become a settled way of looking at law school education, especially ASP. I am vehement, and remain so: treating students like customers is a disservice to the profession, to the students, and to ourselves. A customer buys a product: they don't put any work into it's creation. A product is judged by how happy the customer is with the product. Sometimes that includes quality, sometimes it does not, because sometimes all it needs to be is flashy or fashionable. When this is applied to legal education, it changes education because the end result matters more than the process; the diploma becomes more important than learning and acquisition of skills.

The view of student=customer has other pedagogically disturbing qualities. If a student is the consumer of a process, like a haircut, we are assuming they come in as blank slates (heads of hair) and we will fill them up with knowledge (the cut),  of  which they are satisfied or unsatisfied. They come back if they are satisfied, they don't if they are unsatisfied. Pedagogically, education just doesn't work that way. We just get one shot; they can't come back to re-learn if we do a poor job the first time around. I don't believe I am overstating things when I say this view of legal education can destroy livelihoods and dreams.

It would be easier if law school was a product, students just consumers. I would tell them whatever made them happy and make my job easier. This thinking encourages the pernicious model of ASP where we make law students dependant on us; if they are just customers and we want repeat visits for our services, it is in our best interest to break students down, tell them they can not succeed without us, and foster the idea that we are instrumental to their success. We get better evals, after all, we have made them believe they would not reach their potential without us.  In this model, we can report back to HR and administration that we have many customers for our services, and the school's return-on-investment for our services makes us cost-effective. However, this is a model of ASP that is deceitful and causes real harm to students. In this model, I would not care if students were harmed or they could actually function as lawyers; only that they purchased a product (ASP services) that would keep them happy. And yes, there are ASP and bar prep programs operating with this model.

With ASP, this is a trap. We can tell them the things that will make them happy, but it would be un-truths. We can get great evaluations that say nothing about our ability to actually help them succeed in law school, because they are gone or flunked out before they can really assess our help. Many of us have received scathing evals from students who believed ASP would teach them short-cuts through their legal education, butwe believed in something more than job-approval and gave advice they needed, not what they wanted. We can do things that get them through law school, but don't help them learn lifetime-learning skills necessary to be a high-quality attorney. Our goal is not, to quote Edward A. Snyder of University of Chicago Booth School of Business to "orchestrate an experience from which good customer feedback is sought." Our job is at the macro-level to produce good lawyers for society. On the micro-level, our goal is to assist students struggling with the rigors of knowledge they create, thinking skills they develop-not purchase-throughout their law school career. (RCF)

For more on the debate about students as customers, check out Are They Students? Or ‘Customers’? in Room for Debate, New York Times.

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