Technology is not ‘just a tool’

techEducation and technology share a number of interesting characteristics. We can agree, for instance, that education should be about affirmative transformation, about extending human horizons, and about realizing personal and social potential. The reality is however, that education has too often been used to maintain the status quo, to assert social station and to protect and reinforce the prevailing economic condition without reference to the interests of the individual at all levels of society.

We can agree that technology, too, should be about affirmative transformation. We have used tools since the dawn of humanity to make our world a better place in which to live. Equally, we know that we have used technology to kill, to control, to damage our world and to render passive those at its  (often literal) sharp end.

So, if neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument, we need to be very sure, when we bring them together, about our purpose in doing so. We have to know what we want to achieve from education, and we have to know how we believe technology can be exploited to the benefit of those being educated. To bring them together without a clear understanding of our reasons for doing so runs the risk of, at best, a set of arbitrary and unforeseen outcomes, or, at worst, a situation in which the technology itself defines how, and what, learning might take place.

This is the underlying truth beneath that naive mantra that we hear spouted so often in education, namely that “technology is just a tool”. As I noted in an earlier post:

…technology is only technology when it is being put to use. Otherwise, it is merely passive artefact. At the level of the instrument (such as the pen), technology can be used for good or ill. But that is not a condition unique to technology; it can be posited for virtually every product of the human hand or mind. Richard Feynman put it succinctly when he quoted a buddhist proverb:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.”

A ‘technology’ that is not being used is not technology. It is merely an object, an inactive thing. The moment that we use it we use it for a purpose, and that purpose can be affirmative or destructive. The technologies we deploy in education are no different.