One of the quotes from the panel session at the Hong Kong Summit has really stuck with me:

We look at technology as a tool, but our students look at it as an environment.
(Btw, if anyone can remember who said it, I would love to know!).

I often say that technology is just a tool to use when it meets our needs (like a pencil), but hearing this sentence made me re-evaluate my own perceptions. After all, what is a tool?

  • something I use when it suits me
  • something I control
  • something I don’t need or want around me at all times – only when it’s necessary
  • something small, manipulated by it’s user

Maybe we use this phrasing because it’s less intimidating, because teachers can see the direct comparison or evolution between a pencil and technology, because it helps us feel like we already know what to do with it (the technology, that is).

OK, so then what’s an environment?

  • something that’s all around us, in use all time
  • something we can not directly manipulate or control
  • something necessary to live, and ubiquitous, like air
  • something we are immersed in, even if we’re not specifically thinking about it or intentionally “using” it

That’s a big difference. What does this say about the different ways that students and adults might be perceiving the world around them? What does this mean for education?

Maybe it would help to think about other things that probably started off as strange new tools, but now are inescapable parts of our daily environment, for example: the alphabet, books, electricity, running tap water, etc. These tools are behind everything that we do, they are part of the fabric of our lives.

Although these tools started as something new and different, we can not simply choose to use them in one situation, but not in another. A math teacher wouldn’t say we don’t need to use the alphabet in this class because it’s math. An English teacher wouldn’t say we don’t need to know how to switch on the lights, because this is English, not science. So why do so many of us still think of technology that way?

As Greg Whitby pointed out during the same panel session: “You never send a changed individual back to an unchanged environment.” I think Greg was referring to teachers, but now I’m wondering: what if our students are the one’s who’ve changed? And what if our schools are the unchanged environment?

What do you think?

22 thoughts on “It's Not Just A Tool: Technology As Environment

  1. Kim I love this post. Sadly it is such an obvious answer to the issue of why there is a divide between some teachers and our students in using Technology for every day tasks. I am fortunate enough to work along side some very tech savvy Teachers, but that is not “the norm.”

    We feel like we have been fighting an uphill battle for the last few years, but this year we are starting to see the wheel is slowly turning. Our Junior School classes have all set up class blogs, some of our Senior Teachers are using Blogging very effectively in their classes too.

    Now we need to find the answers to “how do we get teachers to see Tech as an Environment, not just a Tool to use when they feel like it. That is the million dollar question though isn’t it?

  2. not sure I agree …. as I would go even further …. tech is not a tool OR an environment. The difference is between those who NOTICE the technology and those who DON’T. Many kids see nothing special about a computer, their iPod Touch, or whatever. It is the teacher who thinks it is special.

  3. @TFT,

    Yes, good question. I know it will come with time, but I think the rate of change is just so fast that the gap between teacher understanding and student understanding is widening so rapidly we might be in danger of never being able to catch up. I don’t know what the answer is, aside from continued discussions and working on building teacher understanding…


    Yep, that’s pretty much the point of the post – if something is part of our environment we don’t notice it, think about it, or actively decide whether or not to use it. It’s just there. That’s exactly the different I’m talking about.

  4. Great post & wonderful commentary. Perhaps our challenge is one of ensuring that ALL students have the opportunity of experiencing that environment. For example, those in rural, economically depressed regions experience shell shock when exposed to some of the wonders of technology. (I’m talking of post-secondary age folks no less and, surprisingly, not always the “mature” student.) For these we need to ensure access to the tools early on – something that not all school boards are able to do, and something that not all teachers are comfortable with themselves which can instill a similar discomfort in those being introduced to the technology. (I’m speaking of instructors who’ve learned the steps at performing specific functions on calculators unable to explain the math anymore or adapt to different models; those who see Wikipedia as “evil” personified, and those for whom remembering the same password that they’ve used everyday since they first began means lifting a keyboard to see what they’ve taped there.)

  5. @Lana,

    I definitely think this is the challenge we should be focused on: universal access, instead of worrying about limiting which sites we use in our schools that are already privileged to have so much access. Couldn’t agree more!

  6. I think your last question: “what if our students are the one’s who’ve changed? And what if our schools are the unchanged environment?” really hits the hammer on the head. I think that technology is not only part of students’ environments today, it’s part of their culture. There is a lot of work happening in schools to be culturally sensitive, but I think until the adults in schools come to realize the change in culture that has occurred with our children, students will always have to “power down” when they come to school.

  7. This is a very interesting point you bring up. I agree, technology is an environment. Although it may have started out as a tool, can students today imagine a world devoid of laptops, MP3’s, cell phones, etc.? I would argue most can not. In this context then, our students would be put at a severe disadvantage if they did not have a clear understanding of technology. I would argue that this then necessitates technology as an environment. If only more of our teachers understood this, students woudl have a far better grasp on their environment both at school and at home.

  8. Kim–great, insightful post (as usual). I have conversations about “technology” with folks on my campus all the time in which they’re fixated on computers or the web or Blackboard or some such thing. The tone / implication of this focus is often that “technology” is superfluous and therefore dispensable. When I remind them that white boards and electric lights and even pens and paper are technology a light bulb turns on (yeah, very punny) for them.

    I’ve always thought that it was my job as an instructional technologist to push the technology into the background so people can engage in the authentic business of teaching & learning without thinking about the technology. At that point, it is (or at least part of) the environment.

  9. Absolutely. This is why it feels and sounds more appropriate to focus on curriculum, pedagogy and learning styles when looking at the use of tech in schools. I’ve invested so much learning and challenging myself with use of tech as a teacher (unlike the change to whiteboard from blackboard or copy machine from ditto machine) because of the connections and access it provided everyone in the classroom.

    The change from being limited to local access and connections to access to the world has been so brilliant that I don’t understand the resistance to it. I think this is also why technology in schools is so disruptive- it requires revisioning our world and education. It’s not just a new way to lecture or create papers for students to complete and us to grade. When using tech for student learning, students become engaged and more connected to the teacher because when tech is as much a part of the classroom as it is outside the school it creates that environment of relevance and shows the teacher as a model as well as director for learning.

  10. An intriguing post!

    The term that gets thrown around here is ‘world-class’. Like somehow, somewhere in the world there is a place where the classroom is a high-tech paradise filled with committed, techno-savy teachers and engaged learners brought back from the brink of indolence by clever use of blogging.

    Governments have traditionally chucked money sporadically at education -investing when they can…not when they need to. Governments would be lucky to stay at the forefront of pedagogy, technoloy AND content for more than a few seasons before the next fad in any of those 3 catagories came along and made it all look quaint and obselete.

    So what is the measure? I dunno – but one of them would have to be the lack of reaction by students or teachers walking into a room that had a projector and a computer. Tools that are considered so ‘normal’ that their absence would make people curious.

    Be well.

  11. @Erin M,

    I love the idea of technology being part of our students’ culture – such a great parallel to the common understanding that we need to be “culturally sensitive.” I’m always on the lookout for ways we can explain societal and technological trends with historical (or already readily accepted) examples. This is definitely another one to add to the list!


    Agreed! I think sometimes adults have a tendency to “tune out” what children are “into” (I’m thinking of music, hairstyles and clothing choices), and now technology seems to be falling into that category too. The idea that it’s “just a phase”, or that it’s not something that’s really needed for adult life, is so much easier than having to make a change themselves.


    You are so right about focusing on pushing the technology into the background. What a great way to phrase your role as an instructional technologist! I’m going to start using that phrasing as well!


    I totally agree that we need to focus on curriculum, pedagogy and learning styles instead of the tools. I love the way you describe the disruptive nature of technology in schools – you have totally hit the nail on the head! I think the resistance comes from not understanding how to deal with the transformation. People can usually see how helpful technology is in their personal lives, but somehow it seems harder to see within a teaching and learning context (for some). What usually surprises me is that I love working in education because I love learning. I just see changes in technology as new opportunities for learning. I have a hard time understanding when other educators don’t see or show that same passion for learning…




    I love your statement: “Tools that are considered so ‘normal’ that their absence would make people curious.” That’s what we need! To be expected, like a light switch or heating. How can we teach without it?

  12. Technology is something we use to do a job. It may contain two parts: hardware(eg cpu, harddisk, cell phone) and software( program, using skills, knowledge). And We have different jobs to do, such as find something to eat, or download a mp3, or have a talk with a friend. We use technology in dealing with the physical world, info world, and the people in community. So what’s the enviorment? What’s the activity? What’s the role technology play in our lives?

  13. Kim, I am not certain that I agree that environment is the correct word to use. I think culture is a more appropriate word because technology is a feature of everyday existence, a way of life. Today’s students have lived with computers and technology since the day they were born. They do not know life without the Internet. As toddlers they could sit on their parents’ laps and play games on a computer. Once a worn out telephone or remote control was a toy; today’s toddler has their own mouse to play with. Today, students with cell phones are connected to each other at all times. Whether it is texting, calling, or surfing the Internet, it can be done in virtually any place. However, while today’s student is totally immersed in technology (at least outside of school), it is not something they cannot manipulate, control, or live without.

    I do agree with you that regardless if you call it environment or culture or anything else, that schools are going to have to step up to meet today’s learners where they are. There is a reason that Dick and Jane readers are no longer used. Lessons have to be culturally relevant. If technology is part of their culture, then it has to be a part of their classroom.

  14. @chunlei,

    Well I think you can complete an activity and use a tool within an environment, but the tool or the activity can’t actually be an environment. So I guess it’s the perspective that you view the use of the technology – as something you can control and manipulate and use only when you want, or as something that you are a part of, enveloped in, whether you’re using it or not.


    I like the idea of technology as culture as Erin M also described above. I love your statement: “If technology is part of their culture, then it has to be part of their classroom.”

    Just thinking about the difference between environment and culture, the good thing about using the term environment is that we all share our environment, but we don’t all share a common culture. This might help teachers who don’t feel that it’s part of their culture accept that it’s part of their environment.

  15. So then at what stage does it become unethical for schools who serve clientele living in this environment to not have the same environment?

    On another side, I do also remind myself that most of the world’s population does not live in this sort of environment. Their education needs are to escape poverty – and while technology can afford them a chance at this, it is often not the environment in which they live.

    Loving thinking about this.

    1. @Dennis,

      Good question… When learning experiences are hampered or weakened by not taking place in this environment? When the learning is no longer authentic because the environment it takes place in is so out of date? When we’re working harder to do things the old way because that’s the way we’ve always done it instead of adapting to the current environment? I’m not sure there are easy answers for that question, but it’s definitely worth talking about.

      I agree with and understand the “other side” of the argument as well, and I always go back to the Flat Classroom workshop experience – why aren’t we using what we do have to make positive changes in the rest of the world? We’re working so hard to get teachers to integrate technology into their curriculum, but maybe we should be taking an even broader look at what we do in schools. Why isn’t everything we do focused on making the world a better place – at an individual level through student learning and understanding, at a community level in our local environment, and at a global level through the use of technology?

      Thanks for keeping me thinking!

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