Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Telling the New Story Post 2: Technology is Not a Tool

Yes, I know that I've said many times something to the effect of "Technology is just a tool to . . . [fill in with a variety of endings]." But this comment from Conn McQuinn in response to David Warlick's post makes me rethink that phrase:

Technology is not a tool, and I wish we would stop saying it. Technology is a whole shop full of tools and materials, with a whole community of artisans making new tools all the time. A tool is a static object - a hammer is a hammer is a hammer. Its basic form and function have remained unchanged for centuries. In contrast, look at the world of Web 2.0 - a whole raft of new technologies that didn’t exist five years ago, many of them being used in ways that nobody thought of when they were first created.

I think the metaphor is crucial, because if we think that technology is a tool, then the underlying assumption is that we need for students and teachers to learn how to use technology. If, instead, technology is a dynamic process of invention and adaptation, then we need for students and teachers to be able to create technology. Which one sounds more learner-centered?

I think he makes a very good point about the crucial distinction between a single tool and a whole collection of tools whose uses are constantly changing. The way we use these technological tools in education really is a creative process - we are using them to create new meaning and new connections and new conversations. While the use of a hammer could be considered creative in the sense that you create a new end product with it, I don't think the way that you use a hammer is (typically) creative. And I do think that we often have focused on teaching how to use the technology tools instead of how to create meaning with them. When he says that "technology is a dynamic process of invention and adaptation", I think he could just as well have substituted the word "learning" for "technology."

So it's time for me to abandon my old metaphor (story) and start using this new one. I'll need your help - if you notice me using the phrase "technology is just a tool . . ." please gently remind me of this post.


  1. You know it's interesting. One day as we discussed getting more laptop computers for classrooms, several colleagues frowned and got up, walking to their desk looking quite perplexed. I stopped a couple of them and asked what they were thinking. One asked,"Do we have to use the computers? I mean, what a management nightmare. And, what about a good ol' book to teach to the students with?"

    That sums up the idea of technology as a tool...and one that many want to keep in the toolbox in a dark place in an unused garage.

  2. As long as people see technology as simply a new way to do the same old stuff, then our peers are right, to a degree. However, if they line up behind the larger issue...that we need to change what we teach, how we teach, how we assess, how we grade...then technology will be seen as a much bigger gift.