Students, customers, service user?  What’s in a name?

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The thorny issue of students as customers has been raised a notch over the past month. Firstly at the Jisc Student Experience Creativity Workshop  and in matters closer to home that I will expand on later in this post.  Due to undergraduate fees, my colleagues in Universities south of the border are probably slightly more comfortable with the term, it does still irk me a bit. However we do have fee paying students at my institution, we need more to survive, and whatever way fees are paid, we certainly all need to be meeting and exceeding our students expectations of their university experience.

Last week I was lucky enough to meet and spend some time with Jim Groom along with some of my favourite ed tech commentators including Audrey Watters and Martin Weller at the Eden conference. Not surprisingly, lots of our conversations centred around, APIs, the domain of one’s own project and Jim’s new venture reclaim hosting.

A couple of years ago whilst doing some work for the OER Research Hub , I used the API analogy for researchers within the project.  Just like APIs, researchers provide hooks into research and its applicability in the real world. Or in the case of any educational research, the classroom.

Of course we can think of the university in a similar way. It could be seen as a massive API providing links between numerous services including learning and teaching, research, support, administration and many more.

Just now at GCU our new CIO is starting work on developing our Digital Strategy. Unsurprisingly there are many references to the “customer journey” usually preceded by words like  “improving” and  “transformation”.  Ensuring our student facing customer journeys are aligned with our establishing and constantly evolving learning journeys and curriculum development journeys is going to be crucial. This is where I think the term service user may be more appropriate.

Much of the work that needs to be done in our context is around our technical infrastructure and improving the integration and interoperability of our existing systems – our basic service provision if you like.

At this stage, the focus is very much on the “digital ” too. As we still have to come to consensus about what being a “digital university” means in our context ( I have one or two thoughts on that as you, dear reader will know and that was the reason I was at the Eden conference), why not be a bit more up front and talk about “service users” just now instead of customers?

I think that would be more meaningful and help us frame some of the conversations around just what being a digital university means in our context.

As part of the research that Evelyn McElhinney and I did last year around students use of technology, highlighted that we need to be thinking more about how we interact with what we called boundary spaces – the spaces we all find useful (e.g. youtube) – but don’t own and our bounded spaces (e.g. VLEs) in terms of learning activity. You can read more in our final case study.

If the first step on this journey is to improve our technical service offerings, get the quick wins to our essential service then why not make the shift to thinking of our IT infrastructure as an API?

Once that first layer is in place, then we can start to think about the more complex learning and teaching, research, administration journeys in the wider context of digital transformation through  digital participation and our mission for the common good.  Just like with software, the Universiy API provides the basic connections that allow the really exciting stuff to happen.

At the ALT Scotland SIG meeting this week, it was interesting to hear that GLOW (the Scottish Schools digital environment) is taken the API approach too.

I realise this isn’t ground breaking stuff, and it’s one of the reasons I like Mark Stubb’s tube map. I think that pretty much sums up the journeys most universities need to be thinking about.

“Customer” or “service user” may appeal or oppose in equal measure. But just now, I think the latter might be more appealing and engaging for where we are at in GCU.  It might also help separate the technical infrastructure from the people driven transformation that we aspire to.

Dave White has also written another take on this, the student as product. Even more food for thought.

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