Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome.

Last weekend, I whipped up a hand-drawn image on the role that technology should play in teaching and learning spaces.  Over the last five days, it’s been viewed over 4,000 times on Flickr and shared/favorited/retweeted over 500 times on Twitter.

Thought you might want to see it too:

(click to enlarge)



The motivation behind the image was to remind teachers that carefully thinking through just what we want our kids to know and be able to do is the FIRST step that we need to take when making choices about the role that technology plays in our teaching.

Sometimes I think we get blinded by the digital shine that comes off of new gadgets, tools and services.  Worse yet, I’m convinced that far too many educators have bought into the mistaken notion that TECHNOLOGY motivates kids.

That just isn’t true, y’all:  Kids AREN’T motivated by technology.  Instead, they’re motivated by opportunities to make a difference in the world; they are motivated by opportunities to ask and answer their own questions; and they are motivated by opportunities to learn together with like-minded peers.

Digital tools CAN make all of that work possible — but until we start seeing technology as nothing MORE than a tool, we’ll keep wasting time and cash on products that do nothing to change learning in meaningful ways for our kids.



Related Radical Reads:

Are Kids REALLY Motivated by Technology?

Classroom Technology and the Motivational Herring

What DO We Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do?

Two Important Reminders for Digital Leaders

Change Depends on MORE Than Shiny iGadgets





24 thoughts on “Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome.

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  5. Steve MacGregor (@stevemacg)

    What a great post! The discussion, reflection, and debate that has sprung from it is thoughtful and clearly valuable. Thanks for that, Bill!

    Here’s a question: Does using the label, “a tool,” oversimplify the role of technology? I would suggest that this term does not do justice to technology given the breadth of what it encompasses. Certainly, technology can be, and perhaps most often is merely a tool… something used as one of many possible means to a given end. Just because it is an effective and efficient tool doesn’t make it anything more than that. I can send you an e-mail, reply to a blog post, or write you a letter. What is the most important skill here? Certainly the ability to communicate effectively and not that it is done through the “tubes of the Internets.”

    I think, though, that technology can be (not always, or even most often) tool and product. Not just the brush, the paint, the canvas, or even the gallery, but more significantly the artwork hanging on the wall. The final product.

    If a child could write a story and sketch out the drawings for a graphic novel but would rather write the story as a play and have classmates act it out, would we call fine arts/drama a tool or merely the vehicle for learning? Similarly, if the child wants to produce a movie, animated, recorded, and edited on a computer, and the product is something technological/digital that must be viewed and shared through technology, does technology remain a mere tool? We are no longer talking about arriving at the same end by different means. Are we not talking about a medium now? Is a painter not different from a sculptor? They are both producing art but are they not substantially different?

    I completely understand that many might say that what is important here is not that any of this is done through the use of technology but rather that the student is learning the skills of creating a coherent narrative, expressing themselves artistically, etc…

    But (geez, who starts a paragraph with “but?”) this brings me to the notion of technology not inspiring or engaging students. It can and it does. Not for everyone, but we all know as educators that there is little that works for everyone. I have offered students the opportunity to collaborate on a book or to do a similar task with the use of computers and record the narration… this is not something that has required me asking for a show of hands to determine the preferred option. The same can be said about writing an original illustrated story or doing the same on a computer to produce a narrated “movie.” Even after the shine and novelty of doing a similar job on a computer has worn off for some, others will be legitimately excited by their ability to create a movie in a way that they might not have been excited about telling their stories in other forms. This intrinsically technological medium will inspire these students to continue to learn, and to produce in a way that is interesting to them, and will offer educators an avenue to engage these kids.

    And (geez, who starts a paragraph with “and?”) this brings me to what is probably the most important point of the graphic you’ve posted, Bill… at least the most important bit in my humble opinion. No matter what we are teaching, presenting, or exploring, we had better know why we are doing so, whether it involves technology or not.

    I sincerely thank you, Bill, for inspiring me to reflect on this topic (not to mention many related and semi-related topics in the process), and thank all who have added their reflections and opinions to this rich discussion.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Steve wrote:

      Here’s a question: Does using the label, “a tool,” oversimplify the role of technology? I would suggest that this term does not do justice to technology given the breadth of what it encompasses.

      – – – – – –

      First, Steve, thanks for the incredibly thoughtful comment! You have me thinking this morning, and that’s ALWAYS a good thing.

      And (I always start sentences with ands and buts to tick off language arts teachers) while I agree with you that calling technology “just a tool” might oversimplify all that it can make possible, I think that oversimplification might be important in #edtech conversations simply because the majority of our peers have spent the better part of the past decade thinking that technology was enough. In most situations, I DON’T see people asking themselves what they want students to know and be able to do before choosing technology. Instead, they see technology as the outcome and forget that technology can make it possible for us to study essential outcomes.

      So in a sense, the oversimplification matters because it serves to grab attention from people who haven’t been thinking beyond the tool.

      Does that make sense?


  6. Nancy Flanagan

    Who said this? “Digital tools are playing an increasingly important role in the work of successful individuals primarily because they make evaluating, inventing, creating and collaborating more efficient. Without a fluency in using technology to facilitate productive endeavors, students truly are unprepared for the future.” Here’s a hint:

    So–it warms my heart to read “technology is not a learning outcome.” Couldn’t agree more! Excellent piece, Bill.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      First, good to see you here! I miss you and hope you know that. I need to get over to the Strange Land and comment, don’t I? I stopped visiting simply because commenting is so darn hard!

      Second, I think those themes — that technology makes us more efficient, nothing more and nothing less — have always been a part of who I am as a thinker. I’ve just become better at articulating it!

      I still believe that kids need to be fluent in tools — but only after we identify just what it is we want to do with those tools. Just like a carpenter better be able to work a miter saw because he’s cutting a ton of angles, our kids need to be able to master the tools that can make the work that they care about easier too.

      Does that make sense?

      Hope you’re well and happy!

  7. debbiefuco

    Bill, I have seen your image shared over and over again. It makes a powerful statement that has obviously resonated with many educators, including me. I especially share your sentiment about student motivation, “Instead, they’re motivated by opportunities to make a difference in the world; they are motivated by opportunities to ask and answer their own questions; and they are motivated by opportunities to learn together with like-minded peers.”

    So true! It really speaks to the social reconstructionist in me. I am having a difficult time with how quickly some tech ends up in our schools and forced on educators without proper professional development or support. I am saddened at how many apps seem to be more of the same. Electronic worksheets are still worksheets! How many apps are really teaching differently and encouraging students to create something new, to take a stand, to make a difference? I love technology, but like Dean said, only if it’s being used “as the glue that allows for deeper and more varied levels of belonging” and creation. Thanks for stirring the pot and bringing these ideas to the ‘table.’

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Debbie wrote:

      I am having a difficult time with how quickly some tech ends up in our schools and forced on educators without proper professional development or support.

      – – – – – –
      I always wonder why this happens, Debbie. It seems like people have no trouble finding money for technology whether it changes learning spaces or not. That’s a professional failure on our part, in my opinion. We need to demand something better — from ourselves and our peers.

      Mark Bauerlein (author of The Dumbest Generation) would call us “ever enthusiastic techno-cheerleaders.”



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  10. Amalie

    Hi Bill, love your graphic, it really cuts to the chase. Too many educators seem to see technology as the end result rather than a tool that is actually part of all our lives. It should no longer be seen as special, but rather used to open doors and do things better, smarter more far reaching.

  11. Dean Shareski (@shareski)

    This reminded me of the “Book of Learning and Forgetting” where essentially the idea is that we all learn as part of a club. As you suggest, belonging is what motivates us all. Belonging, collaboration can take a variety of forms and is not always how we’ve fostered it in classrooms but the idea of working together or “belonging” is the key ingredient for learning. I’m guessing many people would argue with that notion but after reading that book, I understand that to be the truth. That’s why the tech becomes really important as the glue that allows for deeper and more varied levels of belonging.

    PS, if I’ve not told you before you really do have a great gift for creating powerful visuals. Thanks for making and sharing them.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Dean wrote:

      That’s why the tech becomes really important as the glue that allows for deeper and more varied levels of belonging.

      – – – – – –

      Hey Dean…

      First, thanks for the kind words on my visuals. I love making them — it feeds my design side — so knowing that people dig them matters to me. On top of that, I owe both you and Scott McLeod for that idea. You guys were making great slides long before I even started blogging. Saw ’em on your sites and stole the idea!

      And second, the notion that technology is important because it makes “deeper and more varied levels of belonging” possible is REALLY cool. That resonates with what I know about the places and times where I’ve learned the most. I can’t wait to pick up the book, that’s for sure…and don’t be surprised if I whip up a slide based on that quote.

      Rock right on,

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Totally, Philip! I LOVE my iPad. It’s an amazing tool for design.

      Hope you’re well — even if you ARE crappy at Risk.


  12. Scott Beasley (@Scott_Skills)

    This is the first time I’ve seen your image but i don’t need to take a second look at it to know that this is golden.

    We need to understand (like many things in life) that it is the actual outcome, rather than the means, which makes something valuable. I can relate to this on a lot of levels. for instance, people love to buy expensive things. Expensive smart phones, expensive cars and so on.. but what really is the point of such things? Is it the brands or their capabilities to enhance our lives? People love to mix up the means for the result (which you have so elegantly pointed out).

    This is a reflection of personal values. Do we want something because it is “in”, or because it gives us an opportunity to enhance ourselves and our work?

    People (and a lot of people in the ed-tech world) mix themselves up in technology for no other reason than because it IS technology. It’s the new thing. What we have to understand is our personal relation to such technology – what are the actual possibilities that such technology gives us? Do we want it because it will make us look “modern”? or because it will help us be heard, share information more effortlessly, and interact with others? In a world brimming with tech, we must strive to understand ourselves in relation to it.

    Lovely post.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Great thoughts, Scott…

      One of the things that I think is funny about my tech presentations is that I’m still talking about the same tools and services that I started using YEARS ago. Sometimes I feel crummy about that, thinking people must be bored by the oldies — but I haven’t found any tools that do the same things better than the tools I’ve always used and I refuse to change just for the sake of changing.

      That’s a good thing, right?

      Rock on,

  13. Jeff

    I agree with the thought behind your post , not with the statement that technology is just a tool. That is not the case any longer in 2013. We have moved beyond that statement. It is part of life and the future. We need to stop thinking about it as a tool. Much like if we built a house we wouldn’t list plumbing, electrical, etc as wrong answers to what do we want it in a house. They are part of life ….for many of us at least

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      It’s a good take, Jeff — but just like you wouldn’t think of the plumbing and electrical systems very much when you were building a house, I don’t want teachers thinking about tools and services when planning learning experiences. Sure, we still need tools to pull off those learning experiences — just like you WILL have plumbing and electrical installed in your new house — but it shouldn’t be what drives our thinking and our choices.

      Let me put it another way: You wouldn’t build a new house JUST so you could play with new pipes and wires, and yet teachers are CONSTANTLY playing with new tools just because they are new tools.

      Does that make any sense to you?

  14. Chris Wejr

    Hey buddy…. Love love love your image here. I have concerns when tech is separated from the learning outcomes rather than done together. As you have pointed out, many get distracted by learning the tools of tech rather than using it to enhance the learning outcomes. I also see the opposite effect – when we state tech is a tool, we make it optional (@bkuhn and I have discussed this many times and love his thought on this). What I mean by this is that many will work with kids to help them make a difference…. But their difference is lessened as tech is not used well. Do example, had your students not been blogging to a global audience as their teacher not been sharing it through social media – they would not have had as much of an impact.

    So I guess what I am saying is that there is another layer here that I see and that is asking the question of “how can tech be more than a tool – how can it be used to enhance (or even transform) learning I the outcomes?”

    What a brilliant post, buddy. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to more of your thoughts.

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