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Max. Classroom Capacity

Marcus W. Dickson
Wayne State University

My wife recently bought a Nintendo DS game system, and she bought a game that came with two pedometers, to measure walking, and suddenly I’ve begun losing some weight! Apparently, all I needed to do to lose weight was to buy a pedometer!  Had I known this magical outcome was possible, we would have bought this a long time ago.

But of course that’s not true. Instead, what’s actually going on is that the pedometers have little lights on them, and they blink red until you reach your daily step goal, when they start to blink green. And I can’t bear to have my wife’s pedometer blinking green when mine is blinking red. So in reality, the technology—the pedometer and the game system recording daily steps—is facilitating and motivating different behavior—more walking every day—that is moving me towards the desired goal.  The technology isn’t magic, it’s just a facilitator. And if I don’t follow through on my walking, then the goal doesn’t get reached.

I thought about this as I read the results of a recent national survey of undergraduates conducted by Educause, in which they found that less than a quarter of U.S. undergraduate students strongly agree that their college or university uses the technology they have effectively and that one student in seven believes that technology in the classroom actually breaks or is broken more often than it is used in class (Educause, 2011). Educause, which describes itself as “a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology” (Educause, 2011), conducted the survey of 3,000 undergraduate students to assess the extent to which students’ expectations for technology use are met at both the institutional level and instructor level.
Students in general reported that their colleges and universities use technology effectively for things like course registration, posting grades, and making financial aid information available.

The dissatisfaction that students feel is more likely to be at the level of the instructor. More than half of students surveyed believe that they know more about how to use technology than do their instructors—perceptions driven by their experiences with instructors in the classroom. Interestingly, students at 4-year colleges and universities report greater use of technology in the classroom than did students at 2-year institutions; however, the students at 2-year institutions reported that technology was used significantly more effectively.

Finally, approximately twice as many students who evaluated their instructors as using classroom technology in a highly effective way reported a variety of positive learning outcomes, as compared to students who evaluated their instructors as using classroom technology ineffectively.

The immediate conclusion that many online commenters are reaching related to these findings is that instructors are technological incompetents, and I’ve even seen “Luddite” thrown in once or twice. I’m not sure that this is the best interpretation, though—at least not all of the time. I’ve recently been asked to do several presentations related to the use of technology in the classroom and have attended several meetings and conferences focusing on educational technology. One message that comes through from these meetings loud and clear is that it is possible to use any particular type of technology in a competent and knowledgeable way, but that doesn’t mean that it will be effective educational technology use.

When the iPad came out, for example, I saw a lot of faculty members who were drawn to it, asking “how can we use this in the classroom?” But this is the wrong way to approach technology in the classroom. The first questions always need to be “What are we trying to achieve? What do we want students to be able to do?” The decision to use any specific technology in the classroom then follows from the answers to those questions (Manning & Johnson, 2011), rather than deciding to use some type of technology and then trying to figure out what to do with it.

Of course, once we make an appropriate decision to use any kind of technology, we do then need to be sure we know how to use it and use it in a way that is congruent with good pedagogy. I sometimes hear faculty members say “I tried using [technology X] and it didn’t work”, or “I use [technology X] and it works great!”  Both of these are incorrect. It depends on how you use it and for what purpose.

We as I-O psychologists ought to know this. As many of us do, I routinely tell my students that you can’t say that any specific test is valid unless you also say for what purpose the test is being used. Height may be a valid predictor of basketball performance but not of academic performance. It’s no different with technology. Saying that “it does (or doesn’t) work” is essentially the same as saying it is (or isn’t) valid, in that the statement isn’t accurate unless we go on to say what we’re trying to achieve and how it was used. This is important; it isn’t semantics. Some instructors seem to think that technology is (or ought to be) magic—if you use it, your students will learn more.

So what does this mean for us in I-O? Given the applied nature of our field, our learning objectives are often focused on helping students learn how to do things like job analysis, program evaluation, performance appraisal, calculate adverse impact, assess culture, and so on.  How are we using technology in the classroom and for what purposes? I’m curious about what decisions SIOP members are making about incorporating educational technology into their classrooms and why. Are you using clickers? Twitter? Facebook? PowerPoint, and if so, do you provide copies of the slides to students? Are you flipping the classroom? And most importantly, what are the pedagogical and learning goals that you are trying to achieve when you decide to incorporate these technologies (Duncan, 2004)? What is it that they are allowing you to do that you couldn’t do before?

Get in touch with me and let me know. I’d love for us to start a broader conversation about this, about our goals first and then our strategies. You can reach me at marcus.dickson@wayne.edu, or you can comment on this column at the Max. Classroom Capacity blog, at maxclassroomcapacity.blogspot.com.


Duncan, D. (2004). Clickers in the classroom: How to enhance science teaching using classroom response systems. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Educause.edu. (2011). ECAR national study of undergraduate students. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/Resources/ECARNationalStudyofUndergradua/238012.
Manning, S., & Johnson, K. E. (2011). The technology toolbelt for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.