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?