You're hired

Self-service has been around for decades, ever since Clarence Saunders, an American entrepreneur, opened the first Piggly Wiggly supermarket in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. Saunders’s idea was simple, but revolutionary: shoppers would enter the store, help themselves to whatever they needed and then carry their purchases to the check-out counter to pay for them. Previously, store clerks had been responsible for picking items off the shelves; but with the advent of the supermarket, the shoppers instead took on that job themselves.

You’re hired (The Economist)

Self-service works well where there is also self-motivation. Now that I can use online booking companies, I do all the work that I used to pay a travel agent to do for me. And I like it that way, since I can do that work at 2am if I like.

I’ve only once used the self-checkout aisle in a Wal-Mart, and that was because I was in a hurry and there were long lines in all the other stations. One employee stood watch over four self-serve terminals.

The company is obviously trying to determine whether whatever losses ensue when customers make mistakes (honest or otherwise) will offset the cost of having to pay an employee for each register.

There are, of course, hidden costs — the software that supports self-service has to be much more robust, since it has to train first-time users, and it has to handle all sorts of contingencies.

While I’ve never taught a completely online course, I do put a lot of resources online — particularly exercises and workshops that I’ve given so many time that I’ve perfected the delivery. For instance, I barely teach MLA style in class anymore, since I have two resources (instructions for formatting MLA style papers and a works cited entry builder) that I’ve tweaked over the years to the point where students can use them independently.

Writing out online instructions that are detailed enough to answer all student questions takes a tremendous amount of work. I don’t give my Writing for the Internet students enough workshop time to complete all their homework assignments in class, but I typically let students start an activity in class; before the due date I offer one or two open workshop periods, where I walk from computer to computer and troubleshoot.

I had initially hoped that those students who had figured out an assignment due Wednesday (create a network of simple web pages with a navigation scheme that includes a subdirectory; do some basic image-processing; and FTP the whole thing to a web space) would help out their peers — but because I made the mistake of giving them all their exercises at first, students who were making progress felt the perfectly understandable pressure to go on to the next task, rather than indulge in a philanthropic desire to help their peers.

In the past, I have saved the “create a website structure and upload it” activity until later in the term, but then technology-shy students who had been intimidated by this onerous task were even more stressed when it came time to publish the web pages they had already written.

Of course, if I asked students to pay for their own copy of a powerful commercial HTML authoring tool, then the software would handle a lot of the fiddling details that I’m asking them to work with on their own. That’s another hidden cost — it takes time and causes stress.