Random Thoughts

Tool or Toy? The Blurred Line of a Computer

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Andy Torris is back writing again after the New Year’s break and his first blog post about computers being a toy has me wondering about the blurred line between tool and toy.

The fact is that the students are, in our 1:1 program, really enjoying having full, unfettered use of their computers.  I believe the same holds true with the teachers.  The students have loaded on their own music, began building their own photo libraries. They have added bookmarks, tabs and links to the multiple browsers they use on their machines.  They really like their computers and have “fun” using them to learn, to communicate (formally and informally). They use them to create artwork, movies, podcasts, reports and documents. They use them to research, learn, comprehend and create new understandings about their world.  In short, it is a great learning toy… er… tool.

Flickr ID: clemsonunivlibrary
Flickr ID: clemsonunivlibrary

I just hate it when the lines between formal and informal learning are blurred…and when community members start complaining that students are having ‘fun’ with what is suppose to be a learning tool…well…that just makes me smile. 🙂

I remember those days curled up with my high school math textbook and a big grin across my face because I was having so much fun! NOT!

When we give students a computer and allow them to personalize it, it’s going to become a toy….but it’s not their fault….we all do it.

In the last couple months I have helped a teacher start a personal website (with her school computer) I have helped a teacher edit personal photos (on her school computer) and I’ve helped a teacher learn how to take video, condense it and upload it to e-mail because she’s taking her daughter on college visits in a couple months. I’m starting to wonder if teachers ever do any work on their computers.

….and don’t even get me started on how teachers personalize their computers, with stickers, fancy covers, different stands, and protectors. I’d bet there are maybe 10 teacher computers in the elementary school that have not been customized on the outside….and yes….these are school owned-must give back when you leave-computers.

You see, computers aren’t a tool anymore…they are part of us. I quit using the term 21st Century Learning a few years ago and I’m really close to giving up talking about computers being “just a tool”. At one point they were just a tool, but we’re pass that point. Computers are now our telephone as Skype just passed 12% of all international calling traffic. They’re in our pocket, they go on vacation with us, and keep us connected and organized. They are our calendar, our diary,…..our lives.

For many of us….and I would argue for most of our students….if you told them technology was just a tool they’d look at you weird….you know that look kids give when an adult is trying to tell them something they just don’t get.

Yes….computers are fun, they are amazing learning tools, but they are so much more than that. They allow us to create in class and out, they allow us to communicate, in class and out. They allow us to stay organized in school and out….they are a part of us.

I’m sure someone out there is thinking “that’s really sad…that computers are a part of us”. I’m not saying we can’t live without them for a day or two. But your TV is a computer, your DVD player, your car, your cell phone, your GPS.

Computers are a part of our daily lives whether we’re in education or not….and the lines between work and play or tool and toy continue to blur, we’re going to have to adjust how we think of computers as they continue to become a part of our daily lives.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


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  3. Here is a different thought…What if we use technology as a democratic tool to connect thoughts, ideas, and creations? Does it not become more of a place than a thing?

    • I like your thinking, and as cloud computing becomings more mainstream I think we’ll see the masses start to believe this. Personally I think I’m already there. My iPhone is a connection device, my computer a connection device….they are portals into my world all of which resides at this point in the cloud. E-mail, Banking, Calendars, To-do lists, photos, videos, etc everything I do is in the cloud and the machine, no matter how large or small is my connection device. At this point I think there are very few of us that see it this way…but I’m totally on board with you Nancy it is a portal to the places I need to go.

  4. Jeff
    Thanks for yet another interesting blog.
    As usual I agree with most of what you say; although unlike you I have fond memories of working through Maths books at school [I know, we all have strange quirks of nature that makes human diversity such a wonderful thing]
    Anyway, like you I see my computer as more than a tool and don’t like the term 21st century learning (but have yet not recognised an alternative to encompass all that is going on which also respects the traditions education is charged with passing on)
    Finally, the introduction of 1:1 here in my school has seen noticeable student attachment to their laptops and productive learning on a range of fronts. It’s not perfect (what is) but where the task is engaging and of learning worth the results are impressive. This is where the teacher is a critical change agent.
    All the best and hope to catch-up with you soon.

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  6. Great post. Can’t say I ever enjoyed long walks in the park with my math book. We started two years ago giving our teachers laptops. A good chunk bitched about having to use them. A year later when they turned them in for some updating and were without them for a week they acted like the world was coming to the end.

    • This is the issue….once you start actually using the technology, trusting the connections, you feel lost without them. I went three weeks without a cell phone or a data plan on my iPhone this Christmas….must frustrating three weeks I’ve had in a long time. I’m just so use to accessing what I need when I need it that to all of a sudden not to have it actually caused me lost time and productivity.

  7. Thanks for the pingback Jeff….

    We just did a survey of our teachers on the technology initiative (something I will write about later)… one my favorite comments was….

    “Technology isn’t just a ‘bell and whistle’ – it has significantly changed the very nature of my teaching.”

    The teacher was responding to the question- “Since the introduction of the computers to the students in your classroom how has your teaching changed?”

    Interesting huh??


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  9. I don’t think this is any different than radical technology movements of the past. The telephone became a part of us in terms of communication. Why go back to the days of ‘snail mail’ when you can get a direct response?

    As a we evolve as a society we grow more and more dependent on the available resources. We’ve adapted to the functions and benefits of technology in learning so much that education without computers seems less valuable for our students.

    It’s a good thing that they’ve become a part of us. Let’s just make sure that educators are promoting it in the right way.

  10. I hope I work in a setting where a laptop is as much a part of a student’s toolkit as a pencil is. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be a while until I’m in such a situation.

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