I was having a conversation with a friend the other day discussing her experiences studying an Education Masters degree in the late 90s. She noted that a professor she had held in high esteem really helped her to keep a healthy perspective on the role of technology in education:
“Right from early on, she kept telling us ‘technology is just a tool.’ I think that became an important reminder throughout my research and I’ve carried that view into the classroom. Technology really is just a tool.”
Many of us have often encountered similar viewpoints, and on one level, it’s very easy to accept statements like these. Historically, the late 90s and early 2000s were a time of enormous change as the touted “information super highway” became about much more than just information storage and retrieval. As we began to explore the read/write web, our experience of technology was as much shaped by our participation as by our access to information. In many ways, we’ve become the technology; it expresses our identity to the world, shapes our perspectives and transforms our experiences.
Of course, in education, there was (and still is) a knee-jerk reaction to the hype, hence the need to regard technology as simply a “tool.” This is understandable. Given objections that, for example, technology might be used as a substitute for good pedagogy, why not pigeonhole technology into the toolshed and focus on what’s important?
Of course, pedagogy is – and will always be – important. But in essence, what is pedagogy? Adult educator Malcolm Knowles famously defined pedagogy as “the art and science of education,” a definition now widely accepted among the global education community. It’s a nice binary – art suggests capricious, free thinking and creativity “in the moment,” while science suggests cold, hard objectivity, rationality and critical thinking. Put them together and you certainly have an interesting mix. But where does this leave technology as “just a tool?” Modern (post 1950s!) pedagogical approaches like reciprocal teaching, teacher-student self-verbalisation, real-time collaboration and project-based learning are so entwined with technology that they’re shaped and enhanced by its use. To see technology solely as a tool suggests that these pedagogies are somehow removed.
Today, there was some real buzz on the web about Da Vinci’s famous “piano-cello,” an instrument designed by the artist but never properly “invented,” until now.
To consider a musical instrument like the piano, cello or piano-cello as “just a tool” seems to be missing the point. Of course, any musical instrument is merely a piece of technology – but when we view instruments like these on another level, we see that the technology has incredible capacity to transform identity, perspectives and experience. The music we create with these tools is so inextricably entwined with the technology. That’s why Da Vinci, Stradivarius and others were so committed to extending their imaginations with the technology of their day as far as humanly possible.
I don’t believe that technology is, or ever will be, “just a tool.” I’d rather leave that definition to spanners and screwdrivers and get on with dreaming about how future technologies might change the way I teach and learn – and what role I can play in getting there.