Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.

For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.

In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new.  To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”  Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching.  By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness.  Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.

And yet.

“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.”  By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk.  All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching.  If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?

First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations.  Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct.  They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life.  We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”

Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years.  We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation.  They make us smart.  In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.

Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths.  An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.

Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better.  They have handles.  Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone.  On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious.  Of course, not all tools are well designed.  But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer.  It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind.  (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.)  For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.

An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.

In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

18 responses to “Forget technology–Let’s Talk about Tools for Teaching (Karin Forssell)

  1. Pingback: Forget technology--Let's Talk about Tools for T...

  2. David

    The problem I have with Karin’s analysis is that it ignores that tools–especially technologies–bring with them the ideologies of their makers. Pope Francis most clearly explained this in Laudato si: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” I’d also point to the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, which Audrey Watters highlights in her blog post: The gist of this is that a stron element of libertarianism and materialism is present in the digital technologies, which, when aligned with progressive educational goals, creates a heady brew where technology advances an ideology.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, David,for bringing up the view that technological tools are hardly neutral. Langdon Winner’s “Utopia or Dystopia” makes similar points when he wrote the piece in the late 1990s. If you have examples from your experience that such tools are ideologically bent toward certain attitudes and behaviors, please send them along.

  3. Deanna

    Hi Larry — building on David’s thoughtful reply that tools are not neutral. The fact is that tools embody the beliefs, values, and dispositions of the designers — and of course what they know. Important to ask — what is valued in these technological tools and where are these values explicit in the work. Thanks and ever thanks for all your thoughtful postings that cause me to think and rethink some of my own beliefs and values.

  4. forssell

    Thank you Larry! Already some excellent feedback in the comments. Best, Karin

  5. In previous posts, Mr Cuban has written about technology-infused medicine, When I ask myself, what technologies are making a real difference in how or what people learn:

    1. Math software that provides immediate feedback to students and teachers (continuous formative assessment) with adaptive topic selections and student choice. ALEKS was the first strong contender in this.

    2. Interactive writing allowing continuous feedback to students. This minimizes red ink, just a grade, and a tossed document. Google Documents is the main tool in this arena, but only if teachers and/or other students make comments while the document is being written. This is far superior to efficiency approaches, which are still wonderful, on completed work. A product in this niche is Canvas’s Speedgrader.

    3. MOOCs are a third because they allow credentials for standardized or small topic courses to be taken by anyone. ASU’s Global Freshman Academy is a prime example.

    In other words, efficiency products like Smartboards are nice but don’t dramatically improve the education system. Products like clickers are somewhere in-between. Most LMSs are so static that they have excessive opportunity costs. There value-added isn’t all that great.

    4. The next big win would be an open gradebook that connects different products and individual work to different information systems. Clever is in this space, but primitive. Jonathan D. Mott, PhD has written extensively and in-depth on this.

  6. Alice in PA

    “An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring.”

    I think we need to address these concerns of educators and not just do a bait and switch by calling them tools. I consider myself pretty tech savvy, and I am not intimidated. However, I have serious concerns about screens being a distraction and being an additional level of complication without enough benefits. I loath sitting in meetings where tech is discussed uncritically.
    On the other hand, if using the word tools will get folks to not view screens as a silver bullet, but instead needing the same careful attention to pedagogy as all other classroom activities, then I am all for it.

  7. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Maybe the first law of technology by Melvin Kranzberg is a good addition to this interesting blog post: Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. The latter actually reflects some of the comments being made in reply.

  8. Damn. I’ve been propagating the following (and writing about it too), and now I see it from someone else. See for example my blog ( where I write:

    What do you mean by “Ingredients | Tools | Techniques”?
    Just as an expert restaurant chef makes use of all of the techniques (from frying, to baking to poaching to molecular cooking with liquid nitrogen), tools (from paring knives to rolling pins to food processors to steam ovens) and ingredients that (s)he has at her/his disposal, and (s)he has the requisite deep knowledge, skills and experience to know what to use with what as well as how and when to use them. An expert designer also makes use of all of the techniques (different pedagogies and approaches to instruction and learning from lecture to computer supported collaborative learning to games/simulations, etc.), tools (books, whiteboards, computers, mobile devices, wet labs), and ingredients (content domain, adjunct questions, feedback, learning objectives, etc.), and (s)he has the requisite deep content-, pedagogical content-, and technological pedagogical content knowledge and skills and experience to know what to use with what as well as how and when to use them.

    • larrycuban

      You added to my list of analogies for teachers and other crafts, Paul. I appreciate the comparison. There are many others like you and Karin that have this view of technology integration into daily lessons. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  9. Michael

    Despite that I was born long before Facebook and Wi-Fi was invented, I’m not afraid of incorporating technology into my teaching.

    In my opinion, there’re a lot of useful tools that makes teacher’s life simpler! I’m sure, now everyone is using Google Apps or different interactive tools such as KwikSurveys.

    Besides, you can check this helpful article ( to receive more information about a new powerful plagiarism checker for teachers.


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