Pay Attention in Class

As college costs have skyrocketed, students and their parents have come to view the college experience more and more as a financial transaction. They are the customer, and the college is the business. That consumer mentality -- which I have argued is not as bad as many in higher ed make it out to be -- has nonetheless led to high expectations about the quality of everything on campuses from dining options to dorm rooms.

Nowhere are the stakes of this consumer culture higher than in the classroom. Much has been written about how grade inflation is a consequence of the student-as-customer approach. This is one place where faculty members and administrators need to take a hard line and protect the grading process from the consumer incursion. Otherwise, they won't need to worry about their future customers because they will have destroyed the reputation of their primary product.

But there is another dimension to student satisfaction in the classroom that gets much less attention and might need a little push for improvement from the consumer: teaching. If students think of themselves as customers, they often view the professor at the front of the room as a performer. And just like when they go to a concert or a movie, students expect to be engaged, persuaded, or even entertained.

Is that an unrealistic expectation? If you ask students and parents, probably not. If you ask professors, probably so. "I don't owe the student a special level of performance because a student paid the bill," Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media-studies professor at the University of Virginia, told me recently after he ended up in a debate over the issue on Twitter with Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

The expectation of the professor as performer has only increased in recent years as students have come to class with more distractions. It used to be that students had few alternatives beyond reading a newspaper and sleeping in the most boring of classes. Now they come armed with every imaginable electronic device, all connected to the outside world thanks to the campus wireless network.

Even faculty members at what is supposedly the best university in the country are not immune to student expectations for a great performance in class. A recent opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson noted that while students there are "intellectually curious," the use of Facebook during class "has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it."

When the writer, Hemi Gandhi, asked his classmates why they use Facebook in class, this is what he heard:

A professor starts regurgitating exactly what they've read in the textbook; paying attention won't clarify confusion; a professor starts on a random tangent that is neither interesting nor relevant; students need a break to refocus; students feel pressed for time and decide to multitask.

Not only do students have plenty more distractions at their disposal in class, but some of those distractions allow students to access knowledge about almost anything on the Internet. The professor is no longer the sole source of knowledge in the classroom.

Some professors are trying new ways to reach students. One concept that has received a lot of attention in recent months is "flipping the classroom," where students review information outside of class through videos or other materials, and the in-class time is reserved for debate, discussion, and review of specific concepts.

Gandhi argues that if Harvard (or any college, for that matter) doesn't respond to this competition for students' attention, it risks making the educational experience irrelevant. "Professors need to start thinking of themselves as service providers who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students' curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact," Gandhi maintains.

Vaidhyanathan, the University of Virginia professor, told me he thinks that academe is one place that should be insulated from the demands of the marketplace. Professors have unique challenges in the classroom. Some are best in front of 300 students in a lecture hall; others are at the top of their game with a dozen students around a table. Yet many institutions require professors to perform in both areas. Some are only as good as the appeal of their material. "It's hard to make media studies dull," Vaidhyanathan told me.

As author of The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry), Vaidhyanathan often speaks on the lecture circuit. I asked him if those audiences should have expectations of him that might seem unreasonable for his students in class to have. "Yes," he said. "I have a very different relationship with them. I don't have a responsibility to take them through a checklist on a syllabus. I don't have to cover a certain amount of material. And I don't have to grade them."

Both Gandhi and Vaidhyanathan seem to play down parts of the classroom contract that require the professor to be responsible for putting together an engaging classroom discussion and the student to be prepared and active. Learning in the classroom is an activity shared between a teacher and a student.

In the business world, the mantra is "the customer is always right." Such a refrain, of course, doesn't quite work in higher ed, where the premise of the enterprise is that students are paying to be elevated out of their ignorance, and once enrolled they can't very easily take their business elsewhere. Moreover, it's essential that authority in the classroom be maintained.

But all of those excuses don't relieve professors of the responsibility of figuring out better ways of teaching and satisfying the reason they are supposedly there to begin with: the students in front of them.