Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Incentives and Intentions
Leaving aside the dreary which-screen-is-which and which-bugs-can’t-we-fix discussions, the drift of the conversation was towards how to convince the holdout students to go online. Revealingly, everybody’s first instinct was to hold a series of workshops to teach the students how to navigate the website.
The group spent about a half hour discussing the logistics of the workshops, who would run them, and the like, while I sat in mute disbelief. When I finally couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked why we don’t just charge the in-person registrants an extra fee; premium service justifies a premium rate. Line up the incentives, and the behavior will follow.
There was a pause, followed by a round of “oooo.” You’d think I had landed from Mars.
In the years that this committee had been meeting, nobody had ever raised the issue of incentives. I was amazed.
Students who like to register in person do so because they don’t want to be bothered to learn another way, and/or because they like to be served. Workshops won’t change either of those; those who don’t want to be bothered certainly won’t be bothered to go to a workshop, and those who like to be served won’t attend, either. Workshops make sense if the desire is there but the know-how isn’t; with this population, it’s (almost) entirely the other way round.
The conversation that ensued was much more animated, but also revealing. As educators in a nonprofit setting, we’re so used to the ‘service’ ethic that the idea of intentionally creating an inconvenience is almost blasphemy. (That’s not to say that we don’t create inconveniences – we absolutely do – but they’re byproducts, not goals.) I argued that the same students who bitch, moan, and whine about having to navigate a website when in-person is available will miraculously get over it when it saves them fifty bucks. Those who are simply too prima donna-ish to bother are welcome to pay extra.
I’m not generally a fan of the run-it-like-a-business school of thought, but a little attention to motivation seems like a good idea.
The idea didn’t carry, of course – much too radical, and the Board of Trustees would have to approve it, which they wouldn’t, because it looks like a tax or it might disadvantage somebody or it’s just too complicated – but at least it shifted the discussion for a moment.