Consumer Choice in Education

A chance conversation prompted me to think – why and how does a consumer student/learner decide on taking a course? The answers are many depending upon the stage in the student lifecycle, context and many other factors. So it is interesting to see how marketing and sales functions view the problem of student acquisition, how companies procure eLearning for their employees, how governments model the educational system and associated certifications mechanism, and so on.

The problem is that, in general (and I want to generalize based on the proportion of students affected), this conception of student choice is independent of student choice in the classroom. In fact, two things here – one, that student determination of an academic institution is largely independent of the considerations of the learning process (which is more determined by the prevailing educational systems), and two, that decisions to join a particular course/program/institution are fairly independent of learning methodology and pedagogy itself. This may not be true in specialized conditions – conditions where sufficient choice exists AND students have an opinion on how they should learn.

So it is only very natural that marketing functions should depend upon institutional brand, star faculty, a very agnostic feature-differentiator led approach to technology (and mobility etc.), certification value, alumni credentials and employability/placement potentials. I am fairly certain that nobody compares the levels of educational technology or pedagogic superiority (which gets subsumed under quality of star teachers).

For example, companies that buy off-the-shelf elearning from vendors for their employees do discern between levels of interactivity, multimedia and other factors, but employees don’t have that choice to make. Similarly, parents make decisions based on employability and brand, rather than on how well their children will learn at school. These decisions are, obviously, threatened when the outcomes are not as expected. That is when stakeholders start probing a little deeper, sometimes trying to make more informed decisions around choice in pedagogy.

There is partial student choice in select segments. Retailers in education are in the race for credentials and whatever adds to a market differentiation, helps student acquisition. But these choices are not generally (in large proportions) borne out of a need to use educational technology to its maximum.

This extends from students equally to teachers and researchers – two other consumers in the education space. But here the choices are more refined and the stakeholders generally more informed and discerning. Which is also why nobody overtly talks about teacher acquisition marketing campaigns (that’s just the internal referral, brand and networking).

This is disturbing for me. I want students to be more informed about the choices they have when they go to learn and to be responsible and skilled for creating choices for themselves in constrained environments. Unless this happens, there will really be no pressure on institutions to evolve pedagogy & technology in a concerted manner. Whatever pressure that exists comes from passionate teachers, students and administrators, who feel that they have a responsibility to learners once they enter the doors of the institution. Which is really the brand.

2 thoughts on “Consumer Choice in Education

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  1. Arrrgh! Education isn’t a commodity. Learner’s aren’t consumers. Let’s find another way to vies this activity and the relationships between the participants.

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    1. I know the feeling :). I felt the same way, but it is how a large enough number of people look at it. They are trying to solve problems of student acquisition and retention, for which they are bringing in professionals, even using social media for student “recruiting”. Their view is one of education as a marketplace, not very different fundamentally in economic terms from other marketplaces like healthcare.

      But the point I was trying to make (and I should have titled my post “Student” choice instead of “Consumer choice”), was that we need to make more informed choices and have more choces about how and where we learn.

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