Chasing the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect states that because you start experimenting, the behavior of the people you observe can be changed (see also the related Pygmalion and Halo effects). It puts a strain on educational technology, because say you introduce podcasting into a class and then measure student performance or satisfaction, you can’t be sure that a change is really due to an educational benefit of podcasting, it might as well be be due to the novelty of having podcasts or being part of the experiment. There are ways to control this, but a lot of educational technology research is quite small-scale and done with one teacher and one cohort, and this is particularly susceptible to the effect.

The teacher effect is probably more significant in that if you are the teacher introducing the technology, then the mere fact that you did so will change your behavior. It can make you more motivated (it’s fun again!), it can change what or how you teach, it can make you more thoughtful. In short, it can rejuvenate the way you teach a course because you have to think about it differently. Now, this is likely to affect students almost regardless of what the actual technology is.

Therefore, researchers generally become wary of such studies. But my point is that if it has that effect, whatever the cause, isn’t that a good thing? The introduction of a new technology (or it could be a new approach, doesn’t have to be technology related) every few years keeps you on your toes as an educator, gets you thinking about your course design, approach and content. It’s like all these studies that show that introducing new IT systems doesn’t actually improve productivity, but you have to do it to keep up. If you hadn’t introduced them, the organization wouldn’t be competitive. So maybe there isn’t this great pedagogical motivation for using the new technologies, but their side effects are more significant.

So instead of dismissing the Hawthorne Effect, maybe we should actively pursue it and ask ourselves, “How have I been seeing Hawthorne lately?”

Thanks to Martin Weller

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