Technology is More than a Tool

Definition: Tool – (noun) A device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.

Often the saying, “technology is just a tool”, is said in the context of schools and learning.  I (vaguely) remember writing a similar comment and being challenged regarding that same statement, but since then I have looked at technology in a different way.  Based on the definitions I have read, and the way I see technology (in many cases) being used, it has the power to be so much more than a website, device, or app.  If technology transforms the way we do things, is it “just a tool”?

For example, Neil Postman talks about technology being ecological and how it changes society:

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. I can explain this best by an analogy. What happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.

There is so much more to the “just a tool” analogy in this example.  The invention of the airplane changed the way our world works and that would also fall under the realm of “technology”.  Even though Louis C.K. is joking on this little bit, he does show the transformation of our world when the airplane was invented:

People like they say there’s delays on flights (yeah) delays really New York to California in 5 hours. That used to take 30 years to do that and a bunch of you would die on the way there and have a baby. You’d be with a whole different group of people by the time you got there.

If you even look at modern day technology, the invention of Google (along with prior and subsequent search engines), has really changed the way school should be taught.  Why do we need to focus on content when all of the information you need is a “Google” away.  Really, can schools stay the same with Google existing?  It doesn’t make sense if they do.

Facebook, like it or not, is a whole different way of connecting with people.  For me, it was the phone that I spent an inordinate amount of time on, but for the new generation, it’s this social network.  It is not only a place you can connect with friends, but you can also share your life, play games, and even have advertising brought right to you.  Like it or not, it is a technology that is transformative.

Twitter and mobile devices have also pushed the edges of the way our society exists.  The recent pepper spray incident at UC Davis, still gives me shivers every time I think about it.  The way news can be instantly delivered from anyone with one of these devices and a social media account, is changing how we live our lives, and is hopefully creating more accountability for all people.  It is scary to think how many incidents like the UC Davis event have happened before the mass use of technology.

I guess the reason I even wrote this post in the first place, was from the inspiration of a picture.  I have struggled back and forth with the idea of whether technology is just a tool, or is it truly transformative.  Yes, the way people use technology is important, but again, when used in a certain way, it transforms.  I am certain I may be saying something that has been said by Neil Postman and others, but again, it was a visual that inspired this post.

If my examples above haven’t swayed you, maybe the picture below will:

I just look at that picture and think it has to be more than a tool.



  1. The image at the end says it all. Thanks for stating the case in such clear terms–I am going to share with my teachers–I think we diminish the power that technology can bring to a student's learning every time we refer to it as a tool.

  2. Well said and the visual speaks volumes. In the spirit of Inclusion, I continue to see the immense transformative power that technology has on students (and teachers). They can participate in their learning with peers more than ever.

  3. I agree that we need to shift towards learning how to learn and away from content. However, we can't abandon content. All the information you need is not just "a google away." Not only do we need to teach students about how and where to efficiently find (and use) information, we need to give students a broad level of background knowledge as scaffolding for learning. We need to teach some content for students to apply information literacy skills in some sort of meaninful context. Without some content as a baseline for research, google becomes at best a bit of a gamble, or worse, a dangerous tool that contributes to misinformation and ignorance.

    • So what's really funny is this!
      It was actually Paul Levinson that wrote, "The addition of a drop of blue dye to a glass of water results in not blue dye plus water, but in blue water: a new reality." In The Soft Edge: a natural history and future of the information revolution.

      It was McLuhan who said that the the inculcation of the habit of literacy results not in a pre-literate world plus readers, but in a literate world: a new world in which everything is seen through the eyes of literacy.

      Nice to see your take on it George!

  4. I think the reason people even bother to think of technology as just a tool is in the context of it being the focus. I don't think it is by any means to belittle its function or its ability to transform lives. It is very human to create tools for efficiency, productivity, accuracy, progress – etc. usually to make life better. This is one of the affordances of technology as a tool.

    The real question is, is it ok for technology to be the focus of learning – even though it is a 'tool'?

    My answer is yes, sometimes. I am glad that we have people who focus on technology, developing tools that give us transformative affordances. If we constantly belittle technology as 'just a tool' and not worth the focus, we are discouraging the future Steve Jobs or @Jack (Twitter).

  5. It is interesting..I find myself compelled to use the "technology is just a tool" statement for the novice audience, as a way to make technology accessible and allay the fear of the need for dramatic transformation and change. In a sense, it is a persuasive point for pragmatists and those who do not respond to idealism about the potential power of technology. Once they are in, willing to adopt one tool at a time, then the next level of discourse can begin. In a sense, it is scaffolding for me. Does anyone else feel that way?

  6. That is an incredibly powerful post. I am doing my reflection for Alec's online course and you have said what I have been fumbling trying to say – technology shouldn't be/isn't an "add-on" in schools. Just as any other type of change, some will change quickly while others will take more time. Some will connect with some parts and some with others. As a teacher and student I hope to remain open and willing to embrace it with my students. Teaching is no longer about the "giving" of information or the creation of adults but yet we often continue that traditional narrative.

  7. Just a tool…like books are tools, and pencils, and manners, and forks, and toothbrushes. If you take part in society, you need to know how to use these things. Whether you look at it as a tool or as part of life, our students need to know how to fluidly use technology. Our students are eager to learn about the world around them. Teachers should be eager to teach them how to maneuver in this technological world. It is frustrating to see classrooms with computers, document readers, or SMART boards with dust on them.

  8. Technology IS just a tool, like a stick. Many new technological developments made sticks more effective as a weapon (barbs, bows, attachments, etc, but as long as the stick was still being used to harm other people, I would argue that there was nothing truly transformational about the technology. But when sticks became a way to create fire, THAT was innovative and progressive. I would argue the same could be said of modern technology. Replacing the product of the printing press with an ebook is arguably more effective, but not transformational. I fear that a LOT of effort and satisfaction is being gained by taking words, reformatting them into a digital space, and thinking the job has been done. Please, at best one is taking a club and making it into a mace. There is nothing transformational about this, so please stop using this word until it is applicable. The use of words is of course valuable as a means of transmitting knowledge that cannot be gained otherwise. Methodology-wise, it is the poor cousin though to what might otherwise be learned through experiencing. Granted, there are numerous situations where this might be the only reasonable avenue, but folks, with today's technology, much of what we want students to learn can be experienced by them virtually. To turn away from this, to dismiss it, to let one's fear of this become a paralysis that prevents pursuing the possibilities is to abrogate our responsibility to exploit the best possible means of supporting student learning. Behind this door are miracle waiting to happen, open the doors of education while the students are still willing to knock on it. Until you do, technology will remain a tool, but not a progressive or transformational one.

  9. Hi George. Could the controversy also be rooted in how we use our words to convey our ideas? Wouldn't it be better to say 'technology is a means to an end'? We mean that when we say technology is a tool, but I agree with you that technology is more than a tool.

    I remember when we were discussing the integration of technology during post graduate studies a few years ago, that some authors were making a strong argument for the fact that technology is NOT neutral as some people people believe. I think it is safe to say, therefore, that it is more than a tool (as you are suggesting).

  10. As long as ed tech folks continue to push this mantra, they are setting themselves up for failure in education. We need to change the dialog from magical thinking to effective pedagogy. See The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children by Alan Bain and Mark Weston

  11. George technology is being used for crowd sourcing today to a degree never been seen before. Although technology may be used as a tool by teachers in the classroom, we need to address how education can push learning towards positive, inviting, and innovative transformation that helps students take those Bloom's taxonomy tools one step further to make the world a better place to live. Love the topic!

  12. Entertaining thoughts here. Are you satisfied this is the right way to look at it though? My experience is that we should pretty much live and let live because what one person examines as just — another person simply doesn’t. Individuals are going to do what they want to do. In the end, they always do. The most we can yearn for is to point out a few things here and there that hopefully, allows them to make just a little better informed decision. Otherwise, great post. You’re definitely making me think! –Pamela

  13. I can see how calling tech "just a tool" can belittle the experience.

    But I can't help but wonder: If we focus on the technology itself, will it really be useful to students in the future? I learned to program in BASIC and PASCHAL in High School. Besides learning to use a flow-chart, the classes were a waste of time. How is learning the current technology any different than me having learned those high school programs?

    I believe technology will become even quicker and more intuitive. The quick access to research databases, newspapers, word processing, social networking, etc. make it possible for us to transform our teaching so that we focus more on analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation. So yes, the tool has transformed the way I teach – and I should give credit to the computer and those who have created them.

    At the same time, I still believe I shouldn't be TEACHING the computer. It is not an end in itself. That would be like teaching a pencil…or teaching handwriting, which I've written a post about.

    I can't wait to see how differently I'll be teaching 10 years from now.

    Janet |

  14. Great post. I think of tech as a tool, but I must say it has transformed my life as a teacher and the work and learning my students do. Thanks for broadening my scope.

  15. Reading this post when it first came out was an "aha moment" for me. I think the idea of technology being reframed as a skill, rather than a tool has made all the difference in the discussions I have with others about its use in my school.

  16. I have seen a lot of useful things on your website about computer systems. However, I’ve got the impression that netbooks are still not quite powerful more than enough to be a sensible choice if you often do projects that require plenty of power, like video editing. But for world-wide-web surfing, statement processing, and quite a few other frequent computer functions they are just great, provided you don’t mind the tiny screen size. Many thanks sharing your ideas.

  17. certainly like your website however you have to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I find it very bothersome to tell the truth on the other hand I’ll certainly come again again.

  18. Hey Pal,

    Really enjoyed rereading this after seeing it spotlighted by Will in the comments of your recent post with my graphic. It made me think, that’s for sure.

    In the end, I think I’m more comfortable with the phrase “Technology CAN BE More than a Tool.” It can change everything — and for those of us who are neck deep in changing how we learn with digital tools and spaces, it DOES change everything, just as Postman’s food coloring changes water.

    The hitch is that in the vast majority of classrooms, technology remains the isolated drop of food coloring, added to a classroom without changing anything at all.

    Does this make sense?

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