What’s in a name?

…audience…co-creators…collaborators…consumers…customers…guests…participants…

How you describe and refer to the people who take part in an experience is an important part within experience design – and it is in education -, because what you consider them, and (even more crucially) what you expect from them, changes both your design and their experience.

Walt Disney’s approach might be the most famous: he insisted to consider visitors to his theme parks as ‘guests’ rather than ‘customers’, and the staff as ‘cast members’ (no doubt based on his experience of the movie industry). Yes, the guests pay to be there, but when they are in the parks, they ideally forget about the price tag and just enjoy the experience. Linked to that is the principle to pay once for entry, but when you are inside, you don’t have to pay for the individual attractions.

Considering students as customers, although they technically are, is problematic because the term (and its roots in business) suggests that they are a relatively passive part of a straight forward interaction, where they exchange money for some sort of good or service. In a way this is what they are doing, but of course they are not buying knowledge, skills or expertise directly, they are buying the access to learning opportunities. The learning they will still need to do themselves.

And it is the design of these learning opportunities that really is at the heart of education, it is designing experiences that students can choose to engage with, but that go beyond the simple notion of the student as customer. Their roles and agency is much more layered than that, and this is what needs to be considered when designing our teaching formats.

While the ‘traditional’ (and some would consider outmoded) model might be the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ lecture, a lecture isn’t the only way to frame a teaching and learning experience. In a lecture format, students are usually seen as making up the ‘audience’. But what does this mean for their role in the proceedings? In the most basic form they are viewers and listeners. Are these considered ‘passive’ participants? Is this what we want as part of this learning experience, or do we want something more? Apart from looking and listening, do we want them to take notes? to ask questions? to talk to each other?

Of course the answer to all these is “it depends”, because the L&T of learning and teaching is not a formula like the G&T you might want to partake in at the end of the day. If you always take this much gin and this much tonic, add some ice and maybe (if you are feeling fancy) a slice of lime, you will always have very similar outcomes. But in education we need to have different ways of challenging different minds, and we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of content.

I would say that teaching a referencing system is, in the first instance, content that is appropriate for a lecture. Here, I want the students to listen and look at the slides. They need to understand the principles (some of them somewhat random), before they can learn them. And learning them isn’t memorizing the examples, it comes from trying to put the principles into practice. And that is not a lecture-style content. Here the students need to move from listeners and watchers to do-ers, become writers themselves – writers who reference. So between these two very related contents, the role and agency of the students changes – they go from almost passive recipients of a principle to being in charge of their own work. And this switch is the main reason why the L&T activity needs to change!

This means that when planning L&T activities need to consider

  • the content – what sort of knowledge is it? Theoretical? Practical? Somewhere in between?
  • the role we want students to take in this context – listeners, watchers/viewers, do-ers, note-takers, thinkers, researchers, investigators?
  • the agency we want students to have in this context – are they relatively passive in this context, or are they (should they be) active? Are they interacting with the lecturer or with other students? Are they following instructions or are they independently in charge?

Don’t just see students as customers, they can be audience and collaborators, investigators and listeners, readers and speakers!

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1 comment
  1. That’s why I think ‘students’ is a good term of ref because it includes those aspects you’ve referred to (except, of course, customer). I can’t remember if you’ve got a copy of Why Do Linguistics? Chapter 10 discusses the issue of category change (e.g. from passenger to customer).

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