Graduating Defective Products

A philosophical question often prevents the start of process improvement activities in universities: Are students students? Are students customers? Are students clients? What are students?

Here is how I have long looked at it: I consider students to be my direct customers; parents, spouses, and payers, to be intermediate customers, and employers and society to be end-use customers. This is not a perfect classification, but it works sufficiently well to do two important things:

  • Focus my continuous improvement efforts
  • Assure my improvements result in outcomes that benefit these parties

I was recently communicating with an educator who considered students to be the product of educational systems. This is an interesting characterization because learning progresses over long periods of time both in school and outside of school, post-graduation. If I think of students as our product, then I am forced to recognize that 100 percent of our graduates are defective products – even those students with perfect GPAs. Why? Because because they do not know everything they were taught (nor do we as professors) and they likely suffer from overconfidence or arrogance as a result of achieving good scores or even perfect scores (professors can suffer from this as well). But, the product is good enough, in most cases, to go on to the next step and “go live.”

The software industry is famous for creating defective products that must be fixed after they have been released – often for decades – much to customers’ displeasure. Higher education is, in many ways, similar to that. Our “software” is an electrochemicaly-operated human being that we “code” through classroom teaching, homework assignments, projects, etc., consistent with the purpose of a college or university:

  • Impart knowledge to student’s in their areas of interest
  • Teach students how to think (imperfectly, but presumably better than before university)
  • Start a career (or proceed to graduate school)
  • Develop one’s self while in school and thereafter

The problem is that unlike a software company, we cannot easily provide knowledge (software) updates and “patches” to fix incorrect, flawed, and illogical thinking post-graduation. And this is why I have an aversion to attending graduation ceremonies (including my own).

Graduation ceremonies celebrate the turning out of many people who are overconfident in what they know and what they can do, most of whom will largely abandon self-study (reading and writing), research, critical thinking, and reflection post-graduation – though there are abundant opportunities to do those things in the workplace.

They will make many significant mistakes that affect self and others because they did not think as they had been taught to do by their teachers, from elementary school through college. They got out into the “real word” and do things differently because that is the way their new role models – their new teachers, called “bosses” – do things.

Unlike software updates automatically delivered via the Internet to your computer, universities and professors have no means to automatically update graduates’ knowledge or to identify and correct bad thinking and bad practice. So what can be done?

In addition to the usual happy-happy alumni magazine mailed to graduates to stoke fundraising, we could add value to their post-graduation work and life experience by continuing to educate them. One means would be to communicate examples of good and bad critical thinking in categories represented by each school or discipline. Such examples would come from real-world sources that our former students can relate to.

Maybe then I’d feel better about graduation ceremonies.

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