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?


  1. One of the absolute most spot on blog posts I have ever read!

  2. I get so confused at ISTE for a few reasons:

    1. I am all about learning. I don’t get the novelty and “coolness” of gadgetry. I just don’t. I’m more of a teacher and less of a techie. I get excited talking about inquiry and student motivation. I am more likely to get passionate about a great social studies unit or a new novel or a different way to teach problem solving than I am the latest app.

    2. I am often amazed by the capabilities of technology. I can’t believe an iPad can do so much when it is so slim. I think Raspberry Pi is amazing, because it is small, cheap, it’s multifunctional and it’s amazing what you can do with it in terms of programming. It’s more than that. I am often amazed that I have friendships with people around the world. Connected learning has saved my career.

    3. I am a tech critic. There. I said it. I get skeptical at artificial intelligence and I worry about the gamification of relationships on social media. I see a downside of constantly capturing life instead of living it. I like gardens and pencils and all kinds of things that don’t fit into the ISTE crowd.

  3. I see gadgets as a celebration of who many of us are… that is, people who aren’t satisfied with maintaining the status quo. Sometimes they’re silly, sometimes they’re thought provoking, but more than anything they make us smile. And to me, that’s a big part of it. Most of my learning starts off as play. I don’t know why it’s compelling, or where it will fit in, but when I find it interesting, I have a hunch that I’ll be coming back to it again someday.

    John, in #1 you talk about how you don’t get the ‘coolness’ of gadgetery. And then in #2 you wax poetic about how cool certain gadgets are. Ironic? And sometimes the coolest ‘gadgets’ aren’t technology at all. I opened the session with Seed Money, small packets of seeds shaped like coins, with the intention being that they are to be shared with others.

    As for the migration from Gadget to Tool, I can get behind that idea… with one small exception. Google Glass type devices will be mainstream by 2016. Trust me ;)

    • Steve,

      You may be right about Google Glass. It will be interesting to see how that evolves.

      I’ve learned from you and Dean Shareski how important the pursuit of joy is in our lives. I’m thinking your presentation (and the amount of joy you shared with us) was a great reminder of that lesson.

      Thanks for jumping in here. Much appreciated.


    • I fleshed these thoughts out a little more in a recent post. I have very conflicting views on technology and they often come across as hypocritical rather than nuanced. Who knows? Maybe they are hypocritical. But I love tech and I’m also ver skeptical of it.

      • You just described my entire life.

        I think a “love-hate” or perhaps better-phrased “love-mistrusting” relationship with technology is likely healthy. Far too often we look to technology to solve our problems; when real solutions more appropriatly demand time, human attention, and love.

        • Stephen Ransom

          Neil Postman. That’s why I love reading and rereading his stuff. It’s really important to by intelligently critical of things that impact our culture, our society, our behavior,… our learning and pedagogy,…

    • Mary Beth Hertz

      I’ve been thinking a lot about joy. Adults often believe that joy should be relegated to children. I had a discussion with my 2nd graders about MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Program. We talked about how adults should be able to continue playing like kids no matter how old they are (I will save the conversations about the blank looks I got when I talked about playing in Kindergarten–our kids don’t get to play anymore). Playing is how kids begin to decode the world & learn how to solve problems. These are skills that adults need too. Maybe these gadgets serve part of that purpose.

  4. I love the idea of joy coming from gadgets. I also think that people get joy from different places. I wonder if John’s pencils could be considered his gadgets? I can remember buying special grips for my pencils because they were just cool. Do gadgets need to be “techie?”

    • Mary Beth,
      I don’t think so. The can opener was a gadget at some point. We live in such a tech-centric time that perhaps reminding our selves of the non-tech gadgets is a task more difficult than imagined.

  5. Hey Tony!

    Thanks for writing and sharing this post. This is a conversation that I have had both internally and externally for quite some time. The long and short of it, in my opinion, is that some gadgets can become tools depending whose hands they are in. That said, I do very much agree that we sometimes use technology for technology’s sake and have become (or continue to become) very app and web-tool centric. Sessions that throw 100s of tools at the audience are usually very highly attended, but I sometimes think of them like McDonalds – quick and sometimes tasty – but not very nutritious. The key is to help show practical uses of technology as it can be applied in the classroom to enhance the learning or engage the learner.
    I know that the QR code generator (to use the example you had mentioned) is seemingly meaningless to many. It makes a pretty QR code – so what? But the fact that the user can remove the center blocks and add a word or symbol from BoardMaker can make it more useful for a teacher who has students that need those supports. It is on the presenter to tie the tool back to the pedagogy – something that I clearly didn’t do in this case effectively. And for this, I apologize.

    Doing sessions on apps or tools, as I have done for some years now, is always a funny dance. A lot of audiences that I have spoken to want me to throw as many tools as I can at them. I always give them the advice that these are tools and it is what we do with them that matters – as well as mentioning that we need to evaluate these and their effectiveness for our classrooms and not thrust them on students because of the “cool factor”.
    Technology can’t be used just for technology’s sake – and I truly and deeply believe that. I have seen educators tell me they are “doing a technology lesson” where a pen and paper would have been just as good a tool – and in many cases better. However, with so many tools/gadgets/apps out there, educators are sometimes overwhelmed by the choices and rely on a session trying to highlight some good ones in order to learn about what is available. What I have tried to do in my sessions on tools is couch the content appropriately and pick tools that are either more general and malleable in the hands of the learner or so pointed that the intended user (teacher or student) is clearly called on to see why or how it can be used.
    I don’t disagree with Amanda or Audrey about both the true value of the conference experience being rooted in the connections and conversations with people and I do find the number of tool sessions that are presented without proper couching of the educational value unsettling. But, like McDonalds, if there is an appetite for it – no matter how bad it may be for the body – these sessions will continue to exist. I just hope as the community grows and matures we can work to change the way they are presented and make the conversations more about effective uses and projects that may utilize on tools effectively while focusing more on learning and students rather than the technology itself.

    I said in my keynote that “we” have helped to show that edtech is not the icing on the cake, but rather it is something that is kneaded into the dough and woven into the fabric of what we do in and out of the classroom. I don’t believe in the value of gadgets or tools by themselves – in the end it is just “stuff”. But I do believe in sharing tools with people who want to learn how to craft valuable learning experiences with them.

    So in closing – I guess it is, as with so much in life, what we make with it that matters.


    • Adam,
      As always, you make a boatload of salient points. I respect the work that you and Steve do with tools for two reasons: 1. You bring great energy to their use and 2. you fundamentally believe that building culture is more important than building tool capacity. Knowing how and when (and if) to use the tools is more important than there use. I think what I learned this week at ISTE is that it is very okay to have a culture that allows for the experimental use of gadgets to allow for their evolution into a lifelong tool. I’m thinking, also, that its okay to eat a McDonalds every once and a while, but it needs to be part of a larger nutritional plan. (I’m hungry now).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Much appreciated.

  6. Interesting post. I’ve also enjoyed the comments.

    At this point, I can’t help asking: Can *lasting* joy ever come from a gadget/tool/thing?

  7. Stephen Ransom

    Wikipedia has an interesting entry on “gadget” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadget). The one that resonates with me the most is “as a placeholder name for a technical item whose precise name one can’t remember”… an item so new (a novelty) that no one has really figured out its usefulness… if indeed it ends up being useful at all.

    I think gadgets are important and that novelty can breed playfulness and creativity. However, when one’s toolbelt consists of gadgetry rather than tools, much stands to be lost.

    Another nice Wikipedia entry:
    ” Although he has all this equipment, Gadget is ultimately incompetent and clueless (in a manner similar to the Inspector Clouseau character of the Pink Panther series), and overcomes obstacles and survives perilous situations by sheer good luck, with help from his faithful niece Penny and intelligent dog Brain who both must secretly help him solve each case. Even his gadgets often malfunction, which Gadget often deals with by exclaiming that he needs to get them fixed.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspector_Gadget

  8. Rodney Turner

    Thank you for sharing you point of view on the conference. You made some solid points which has prompted a question in my mind: How many of my “tools” are actually “gadgets”?
    Based on the proceeding comments, I can say that I too am moving toward needing to know the instructional application of the “new” tool, but at the same time trying to figure out how it works first so I can get to its real educational value. I’m with Steve. My learning begins with play. In my future PD sessions, I will build in time to do just that.
    Thank you Tony for a thought-provoking post and to those who commented.

  9. Hi Tony,
    Great post and a wonderful conversation going here! I missed ISTE this year for the first time in about 8 years, but did follow many of the tweets!

    Stephen Ransom has it right in my humble opinion. We need to be zooming out and rereading these days, rather than getting our heads up our apps…so to speak. We stand on the shoulders of giants although we sometimes like to think we are ‘at the beginning’ with much of this technology stuff.

    So…Neil Postman, Marshal McLuhan, Sherry Turkle, Derrick de Kerckhove- good places to start in order to understand how tools and gadgets shape our behaviour. My friend Peter Skillen has a better understanding of this and has written about it on his blog and here: http://coopcatalyst.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/its-not-about-the-tool-a-naive-myth/

    As for ISTE, I’ve had so many wonderful years of learning there that have continued with connections that really enrich my learning life – but I can’t ignore the corporate influence. What I resent is the message that technology connected classrooms are what will change students’ lives. I’d have to agree with John T Spencer – I’m skeptical about that because I know so many extremely impactful educators who are being made to feel inadequate if they aren’t using the latest tool out there – shame on us! Adam’s comment resonates – it’s what we make of it, not the tool itself.

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