I’ve been thinking a bit about “tools” and “gadgets” since a quick exchange on twitter with Dean Shareski on day 1 of ISTE13. After publicly pushing back on the pedagogical significance that a QR code tool that Adam Bellow (yes, that Adam Bellow- sorry, Adam) was sharing, Dean politely smacked me down by asking me if all tools had to have a significant impact on learning. Couldn’t they just be used because they are cool?
My major complaint with ISTE13 is its corporate feel and it’s continual pushing of tools. Audrey Waters addressed this concern better than I ever could here, and I really appreciate Amanda Dykes commentary on how the best tools at ISTE13 are the people. Above all, however, I am conflicted with how tool-centric we become and whether we are using tools for tools sake, or because there is a great purpose for their use.
So, when I went to Steve Dembo’s presentation on “gadgets” on the last day of the conference, I did so because Steve is wildly entertaining, not because I was excited about more stuff. Dean had me thinking about the purpose of tools (Can’t they be used to achieve joy?), but I still questioned our motivations for their use. Are we using them just to use them, or are we more purposeful in our choice to use specific tools?
And then Steve said this:
Nothing I am going to show you today will raise test scores.
The crowd roared and I was intrigued. For the next hour, Steve shared gadgets that would make little, if any, near-term educational impact. He was sharing devices that were cool, made us laugh, brought joy to all of us, in part because of the joy we saw in Steve.
These weren’t educational per se, but they were making me think. Hard.
Is there a difference between “tool” and “gadget”? After some thought on the plane ride home, and on the days following ISTE, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a difference between the two. And, like good hard thinking tends to do, has resulted in a more interesting question that will require further reflection. Before I get to that, however, let me share my definition of the terms in question.
A “tool” implies that a job needs to be done and an implement of some sort is needed to either complete the job, or make the job easier to accomplish, but the tool itself is not the purpose of completing the job. For example, in a science classroom data is collected using Vernier Probes. In golf, a sand wedge is used to escape from a sand trap. At home, a lawnmower is used to mow lawns. While there may be some joy found in using any of those tools, they are chosen because a task needs to be completed. There may even be other tools available to complete the job, but those are chosen for a specific reason (efficiency, safety, economics, etc). Regardless of why, the tool is used as a means to an end.
A “gadget” on the other hand, may not be needed to complete a task. The job may even be completed more easily, efficiently, economically or reasonably using a different device. Yet, the gadget is chosen. Why? Because, using the gadget brings great joy to the user. The GoPro Camera isn’t necessary, but boy do we have fun using it. The telephoto lens is a luxury, but using it to take pictures is incredibly satisfying. Adam’s custom QR Code does little to add to the educational value of it use, but it makes it cooler. In fact, there may be no pragmatic reason for using the gadget, but it brings excitement and joy with its use. More specifically, the gadget is being used for the implicit reason to reach some level of joy otherwise not found by using a more practical tool.
Which brings me to that interesting question I alluded to earlier.
Does a gadget eventually become a tool as behaviors evolve over time?
I can recall when the first iPhone came out and few could understand how mobile applications would be useful. Now, the phone app is the least used app on my phone and I couldn’t imagine ISTE without my daily use of apps to enrich the experience, strengthen relationships, and share understandings. The iPhone was a gadgety mobile phone in 2007. Today, it’s a vital tool.
Of the supposed 20,000 attendees of ISTE13, I crossed paths with two wearing Google Glass. I saw their uses touch near their temples and heard them say, “OK Glass.” I watched the movie that Adam created for his incredible keynote solely from his Glass. But, I didn’t see Google Glass as anything other than a neat gadget.
Which makes me wonder, in 2019 will I see Google Glass as the invaluable tool that I see my iPhone as today?