AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

24: Learning with technology: Using computers as cognitive tools

24.1 Introduction
24.2 Computers as cognitive tools
24.3 Why cognitive tools?
24.4 Overview of the chapter
24.5 Computer programming languages as cognitive tools
24.6 Hypermedia/ Multimedia authoring systems as cognitive tools
24.7 Semantic networking as cognitive tools
24.8 Expert systems as cognitive tools
24.9 Databases as cognitive tools
24.10 Spreadsheets as cognitive tools
24.11 Conclusions
24.12 A final word
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24. Learning With Technology: Using Computers As Cognitive Tools

David H. Jonassen
Pennsylvania State University
Thomas C. Reeves
University Of Georgia


Human progress can be investigated in many ways. One insightful approach is to study the nature and quality of the tools people have discovered, invented, and refined over the centuries. The most common understanding of tools focuses on them as external implements, i.e., the levers, pulleys, and simple machines that have enabled physically weak human beings to change the course of mighty rivers, build giant edifices, and create ever-more complicated machines. A more theoretical perspective of tools recognizes that some tools are powerful without having a tangible physical substance, in the sense that a hammer does. Pea (1985) refers to these tools as cognitive technologies, and Salomon, Perkins, and Globerson (1991) call them technologies of the mind. In this chapter, we prefer the term cognitive tools (Kommers, Jonassen & Mayes, 1992) and elsewhere mindtools (Jonassen, 1996). Cognitive tools refer to technologies, tangible or intangible, that enhance the cognitive powers of human beings during thinking, problem solving, and learning. Written language, mathematical notation, and, most recently, the universal computer are examples of cognitive tools. This chapter focuses on computer-based cognitive tools, including common software applications and interactive learning environments, and their effects in the context of human learning.

Our emphasis on the uses and effects of computers and related technologies as cognitive tools is distinctly different from that of most of the other chapters in this handbook, in which technologies are primarily considered as forms of "media." Despite efforts to change the focus of the debate (cf. Jonassen, Campbell & Davidson, 1994), long-standing arguments about the relative effectiveness of media continue (cf. Clark, 1994; Kozma, 1994). Whether one sides with those who believe that media have little or no effects on learning or with those who promote its unique instructional effectiveness, such arguments are limited by narrow definitions of media as conveyors of information, communicators of knowledge, or tutors of students. We regard the "technology as instructional communications" perspective (see Chapter 4), although admittedly widespread throughout education and training, to be inherently flawed because it fails to recognize learners as active constructors of knowledge (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; see Chapters 7 and 23).

Grounded in this limited perspective, most research studies reported in the other chapters in this handbook treat students as perceivers or recipients of knowledge encoded in various forms of instructional media. In essence, these studies and the technology applications investigated in them are about "educational communications," i.e., the deliberate and intentional act of communicating content to students, with the assumption that they will learn something "from" these communications (see Chapter 4). In educational communications, information or knowledge is encoded visually or verbally in the symbol systems enabled by various technologies. During the "instructional" process, students perceive the messages encoded in the media, e.g., in video, and occasionally "interact" with the technology, e.g., in computer-based instruction. Interaction is normally operationalized in terms of student input to the technology, some form of answer judging, and a response in the form of some message previously encoded in the media. Technologies as conveyors of information have been used for centuries to "teach" students, whereas interactive technologies began to be introduced early in the 20th century to "engage" students in the learning process (Cuban, 1986).

Educational communications and the technologies in which they are encoded are conceived, analyzed, and designed by educational specialists (often referred to as educational or instructional technologists). Historically, educational media have been developed by teams of educational technologists, including instructional designers, media producers, and. media managers, in collaboration with other types of specialists, e.g., subject-matter experts and teachers. These teams often employ systematic instructional design models (cf. Dick & Carey, 1990; Gagn6, Briggs & Wager, 1987) to guide their efforts to analyze, develop, produce, and evaluate instruction. Design decisions made by these teams are purported to be informed by the kinds of educational communications and media research represented throughout this handbook, and some theorists even claim to be on the verge of automating the instructional design process based on existing learning theory and research (cf. Merrill, Li & Jones, 1990; Spector, Polson & Muraida, 1993).

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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