Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Nudges and the Parable of Email

“Don’t forget…”  

Susan Dynarski did a brilliant piece earlier this week in the New York Times about “nudging” students towards success.  She draws the term from Cass Sunstein, who wrote a book about behavioral economics and some of its concrete applications.  For example, some schools that wanted students to select fruit more often for lunch discovered that simply placing the fruit in a more conspicuous and convenient place in the lunch line made a difference.  Nudges are consciously-designed interventions intended to take advantage of people’s unconscious habits to push them in a particular direction.  They’re less coercive than directives, in that the nudged are always free to disregard the hint and substitute their own preferences.  But since most people look for the ‘default’ setting on low-stakes decisions, an adjustment to the ‘default’ setting can produce significant results.  Those who care deeply can always override the default, and some will.

Dynarski mentioned several ways that various schools and colleges have used nudges to improve student success.  Her most compelling anecdote, drawn from a randomized study, involves a college using text messages to remind (or nag, depending on taste) students about deadlines to submit financial aid applications.  Apparently, for a cost of about five dollars per student, the college was able to generate a dramatic improvement in rates of students actually completing financial aid applications.  Given the impact of finances on students’ ability to remain focused and succeed academically, that is nothing to sneeze at.  She concluded with a suggestion that nudges don’t catch on because nobody could take internal credit for them.

Concur in part, dissent in part.

I’m a fan of behavioral economics, and I’ve been talking about her article on campus all week.  In the course of some ot those discussions, though, I’ve started to get a sense of some of the friction that new nudges can encounter.

The most basic is a sense of boundaries.  Email provides an example.  Emails are free to send, and every student at the college is issued an email account.  (My college isn’t unique in that; free “.edu” email addresses are pretty standard.)  Students can access email, theoretically, on just about any device.  So over the years, the number of emails that various offices, programs, and departments sent to students mushroomed. When the trickle became a deluge, students stopped trying to sort out the important stuff from the rest, declared it all spam, and ignored it all.  What had started as a potential game-changer quickly made itself irrelevant through overuse.  We had to develop an organization-wide communication protocol with pretty strict rules about mass emails.  Now, when we really need to get responses on a large scale, we use postcards.

I don’t see why texting would be immune to the same issues.  Good results from initial texting would lead to more, and more, until students start to tune it out.  Worse, many of our students are on very cheap prepaid plans that charge by the text, so the barrage of messages actually costs them money.  That may not be true at more affluent campuses, but at most community colleges, we can’t take for granted that students have unlimited plans.

That sort of effect wouldn’t show up in a small, randomized, controlled study.  It’s the kind of thing that shows up with scale, over time.  But it matters.

Identifying a nifty new nudge is great, and I’m all for it.  Figuring how to adapt it to local context in a way that won’t inadvertently kill it is harder.  I’m all for that, too, but it’s a more complicated process.  It’’s not just about claiming internal political credit.  

Having been through that with email, I can understand a certain reticence to adopting wholesale texting as The Next Big Thing.  Any tool is only as good as the strategy behind its use.  It’s all well and good to tell students not to forget about deadlines, but we have to be sure not to forget the mistakes of our past.

The online homework/testing site that I use allows students to opt-in to emails that will tell them if a deadline has changed and remind them at given intervals that they have homework due. I recommend to them that they set up at least one "homework due" notification, but it's up to them. Maybe a texting opt-in would work if there were clear and adhered-to limits on who uses it and how often it can be used.
Our campus now issues a daily bulletin rather than allowing various departments and units to send campus emails. It has cut down on the perception that Academic Affairs or Student Fin. Services is spamming everyone, but it's pretty clear not everyone is routinely reading the bulletin. (I personally look at it about twice a week, since most announcements are repeated daily).
Drawing from "Nudge," I'd suggest something along the lines Vicki suggested with one modification. Take all of your students who have signed up for your campus emergency notification system (almost all of them have) and enroll them the texting program (with strict parameters for use as you indicate). Allow them to opt out - as opposed to requiring them to opt in. As Nudge shows, this will likely increase enrollment substantially over an opt-in program, but will allow those who have a cheap pay as you go plan to not lose any money by opting out.
What the convention I help run does to deal with this problem is to have a Social Media person who absolutely all communications over Facebook/Twitter/whatever have to go through, and she keeps an eye on the volume and keeps it appropriate to each medium by scheduling everything, combining things, or helping over-sharers edit how much stuff they need to be telling everyone about and how often.

We also do a MONTHLY email newsletter, which means that it doesn't contain a bunch of repeated information the way a daily one would. People are more likely to read something infrequent (but regular) and curated, particularly if it's considered sufficient notice that something changed and you have now been informed. For a college, I'd suggest weekly rather than daily, and curated it to keep it as short and relevant as possible, possibly with links to specific pages on the website for students who actually want more details on the Math Department Potluck or the Community Service Club's latest volunteer opportunities.

During the convention itself, we have a daily, printed zine that is one page front and back, and it's someone's specific job to take potential announcements and curate it down to that length. It's short enough that most people read it, and it's how we communicate about cancellations of events during the convention.

The biggest thing, as you already know, is that people tune out anything long or mostly irrelevant, so the curation piece is the biggest favor you can do for your students. I'm the kind of person who actually used to read software manuals, but most people don't.
It always seems beyond weird to me that in the USA you get charged to receive a text. Probably why texting rates are lower there than NZ or Europe.

It's no weirder than the credit hour system which measures learning by turning up rather than outcomes, but things that are normal in one context are weird in another
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?