It’s not just a tool

Cross posted at Tech Learning

Saying technology is “just a tool” can be a very dangerous statement. I understand that when people say this, they’re simply trying to point out that technology is a peripheral that enables us to do the things we want to do better than before. I can agree with that concept but the problem with this thinking is that it often gets used to see technology only as a means to automate or make current practice more efficient. There are very few people involved in any level of education that thinks technology isn’t necessary for our students. Where we disagree is in how we’ll use it and most often there exists a lack of understanding and appreciation for the trans-formative nature of technology.

The question that my colleague Darren Kuropatwa asks in many of his presentations is “What is it I can do now that I couldn’t do before? is a fundamental question that should be asked way more. Many people’s use of technology simply involves faster and more efficient, not different. As Will Richardson points out,

“…if we’re touting the online experience has superior because kids can take trips and still do the work or because their teachers are excited, that speaks to bigger, more fundamental issues that aren’t being addressed. This is still all about content delivery, old wine in a new bottle that’s being motivated more by economics and convenience than good or better design. And it’s about, as I mentioned yesterday, a growing business interest that sees an opportunity to make inroads into education as ‘approved providers.’”

So is technology just a tool? That statement minimizes the shifts and changes that technology affords and allows people to use technology to perpetuate bad practices, more testing and seek efficiency and simplicity instead of the messiness that comes from personalized connections to passions and interests. While I advocate largely for the ability to use technology to share and make connections, the ability for us to leverage technology to create projects, works of art and beauty not possible prior to our current age should change they way we think about learning.


2917156969_6065a8811f_zI worry sometimes about efforts to “infuse technology” into our classrooms. Much of this infusion is just about continuing on with current practice and sprinkling technology on top and calling it innovative. This is when it’s just a tool. When the technology transforms the way we learn, offers us new, unchartered experiences and opportunities, it’s much more than a tool but a whole new environment.


In the book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas, John Seely Brown, they talk about this new culture as creating learning environments, not systems as we currently see in our schools. Systems emphasize control from a small number of managers, environments rely much more on the collective.

“If we change the vocabulary and consider schools as learning environments, however, it makes no sense to talk about them being broken because environments don’t break.”

Of course we currently aren’t using technology to create learning environments at best we’re embedding them into our current system. While that statement might seem like semantics to some, it represents the completely unique shift that can occur if we allow ourselves to fully utilize the affordance of technology. This isn’t even about some type of Utopian world of learning. With new affordance comes new problems. But these new problems need to be viewed and addressed in new ways.

So the next time someone says technology is just a tool, I’d encourage you to probe more about what that means because too often it’s a way of downplaying the significant potential and shift of emerging technologies.

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