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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24.3 Why cognitive tools?

The history of educational communications and technology includes numerous examples :of failed innovations and unfulfilled promises. Cognitive tools could become yet another casualty in the difficult struggle to improve teaching and learning unless it has a strong foundation of theory and practical principles to support it. In the following section, we briefly describe constructivist learning theory and related principles (see also Chapter 7) for its implementation. Considered together, constructivism and its attendant principles constitute a strong rationale for using technology as cognitive tools.

24.3.1 Knowledge Construction, Not Reproduction

Learning theory is in the midst of a revolution. Constructivist learning theory is gradually gaining the same respect and attention long accorded to instructivist learning theories such as behaviorism (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992), though not without a struggle (cf. Phillips, 1995). Constructivism is concerned with the process of how we construct meaning and knowledge in the world as well as with the results of the constructive process. How we construct knowledge depends on what we already know, our previous experiences, how we have. organized those experiences into knowledge structures such as schemata and mental models, and the beliefs that we use to interpret the objects and events we encounter in the world. Cognitive tools can help us as learners organize, restructure, and represent what we know.

Constructivists (cf. von Glaserfeld, 1989) maintain that we construct our own reality through interpreting our experiences in the world. From the constructivist perspective, the ultimate nature of reality, or whether it even exists, does not matter as much as our unique and shared constructions of reality- According to constructivism, the teacher cannot map his or her own interpretations of the world onto the learner, because they do not share a set of common experiences and interpretations. Reality (or at least what we know and understand of it) resides in the mind of each knower who interprets the external world according to his or her own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge. Learners are able to comprehend a variety of interpretations and to use them in arriving at their own unique interpretations of the world. The mind filters input from the world in making its interpretations, and therefore we each conceive of the external world somewhat differently.

Whereas instructivists emphasize the transmission of standardized interpretations of the world by teachers and the educational communications they employ, as well as standardized assessments to test the degree to which students' understandings match the accepted interpretations, constructivists are more interested in creating learning environments wherein learners use cognitive tools to help themselves construct their own knowledge representations. Cognitive tools and the goals, tasks, culture, resources, and human collaboration integral to their use enable learners to engage in active, mindful, and purposeful interpretation and reflection. In traditional instruction, active refers to stimulus, response, feedback, and reinforcement conditions that help students mirror accepted views of reality, whereas in constructivist learning environments, active learners participate and interact with the surrounding environment to create their own interpretations of reality.

24.3.2 Designers as Learners

Ironically, the people who seem to learn the most from the systematic instructional design of instructional materials are the designers themselves. Jonassen, Wilson, Wang, and Grabinger (1993) reported this discovery while developing expert systems advisors that were intended to supplant the thinking required by instructional designers. The process of articulating their knowledge about the process of instructional design forced them to reflect upon their knowledge in a new and meaningful way. Following the old adage that the surest way to learn about subject matter is to have to teach it, the process of designing and producing instructional materials as performed by designers of educational communications enables instructional designers to understand content much more deeply than the students whose thinking will be constrained and controlled by the very materials they are developing. It follows that empowering learners to design and produce their own knowledge representations and educational communications is a powerful learning experience.

24.3.3 Learners as Designers

Langer (1989) and others (cf. Salomon & Globerson, 1987) have reminded us of the importance of mindfulness in learning. Students learn and retain the most from thinking in meaningful (mindful) ways. Some of the best thinking results when students try to represent what they know. Representing knowledge as a mindful task can be enabled by cognitive tools such as hypermedia construction software or electronic spreadsheets. Such cognitive tools require students to think in meaningful ways to use the application's capabilities and features to represent what they know. Just as electronics troubleshooters cannot work effectively without the use of tools such as probes and oscilloscopes, students cannot learn deeply or mindfully without access to cognitive tools that help them assemble and represent knowledge. In short, the real power of computers to improve education will only be realized when students actively use them as cognitive tools rather than passively perceive them as tutors or repositories of information.

24.3.4 Experiential and Reflective Thinking

Norman (1983) distinguishes between two forms of thinking: experiential and reflective. Experiential thinking evolves from our experiences in the world; it is reflexive and occurs automatically. We experience something in the world and react to it; e.g., we see a red light and brake the car. Reflective thinking, on the other hand, requires more careful deliberation. We encounter a complex situation, think about it, reflect on stored knowledge, make inferences about it, determine implications, and reason about it. Reflective thought is the careful, deliberate kind of thinking that helps us make sense of what we have experienced and supports our construction of what we know. For example, consider the reflective thought required by major decisions in life concerning career, family, and health. Reflective thinking often requires external support, including books, computers, or other people. Norman contends that computers support reflective thinking when they enable users to compose new knowledge by adding new representations, modifying old ones, and comparing the two. Cognitive tools should be readily accessible to learners to support reflective thinking within the context of learning.

24.3.5 The Effects of Learning with and of Technology

Salomon, Perkins, and Globerson (1991) make an important distinction between the effects of learning with and of technology:

First, we distinguish between two kinds of cognitive effects: Effects with technology obtained during intellectual partnership with it, and the effects of it in terms of the transferable cognitive residue that this partnership leaves behind in the form of better mastery of skills and strategies (p. 2).

Cognitive tools are important in both respects. With respect to the "with" effects, we agree with Salomon et al. (1991) that "the cognitive effects with computer tools greatly depend on the mindful engagement of learners in the tasks afforded by these tools" (p. 2). We think that educators should empower learners with cognitive tools and assess their abilities in conjunction with the use of these tools.

Such a development will entail a new conception of ability as an "intellectual partnership" between the learner's mind and various cognitive tools. Although some might worry that this partnership makes learners too dependent on the technology to perform without it, we must recognize that many contemporary performances are meaningless without the technologies that enable them. Allowing students to demonstrate their learning in collaboration with cognitive tools may be attacked by certain authorities with heavy investments in the existing system, but we should remember that such attacks have occurred in the face of every innovation. For example, Plato criticized written language as a technology that would weaken human memory. Just as we would not assess the ability of an artist without allowing the use of brushes, paint, and other media, we should not assess contemporary intellectual abilities without the tools of contemporary intellectual practices, including books and computers (Salomon et al., 1991). Indeed, our very conception of knowledge must change. For example, Simon (1987) maintains that we should move from a conception of knowledge as possession of facts and figures to one of knowledge as the ability to retrieve information from databases and use it to solve problems.

Postmodernists and other critical theorists (see Chapters 9 and 10) worry about our eventual evolution into cyborgs (Yeaman, 1994). Although we do not share this concern, we recognize that there are many important intellectual abilities that should be performed and accessed without the aid of cognitive tools. This is where Salomon et al.'s (1991) delineation of the learning effects of technology become so important:

Until intelligent technologies become as ubiquitous as pencil and paper-and we are not there yet by a long shot - how a person functions away from intelligent technologies must be considered. Moreover, even if computer technology became as ubiquitous as the pencil, students will still face an infinite number of problems to solve, new kinds of knowledge to mentally construct, and decisions to make, for which no intelligent technology would be available or accessible (p. 5).

Salomon et al. (1991) argue that the existing research, largely experimental, "has demonstrated more what transferable effects the partnership with computer tools and programs can be made to have than the effects it actually does have under more natural conditions of daily employment" (pp. 6, 7). Whether cognitive tools leave the "cognitive residue" that they are predicted to leave in practical educational settings is the focus of some of the research reported in this chapter.

24.3.6 Meaningful versus Easy Learning

One of the false promises of many previous instructional innovations has been to make learning fun and easy (Cuban, 1986). Cognitive tools make no such promise, either for learners or teachers. Instead, cognitive tools and interactive learning environments activate complex cognitive learning strategies and critical thinking. These computer-based tools not only extend the mind, they have the potential also to reorganize mental functioning (Pea, 1985) and engage learners in high-level generative processing of information (Wittrock, 1974). In generative processing, deeper information processing results from activating appropriate mental models, using them to interpret new information, assimilating new information back into those models, reorganizing the models in light of the newly interpreted information, and using the newly aggrandized mental models to explain, interpret, or infer new knowledge (Norman, 1983). Knowledge acquisition and integration, according to these perspectives, is a constructive process involving "mindful" cognitive effort (Langer, 1989; Salomon & Globerson, 1987). When using cognitive tools, learners engage in knowledge construction rather than knowledge reproduction.

Cognitive tools actively engage learners in creating knowledge that reflects their comprehension and conceptualization of information and ideas rather than absorbing predetermined presentations of objective knowledge. Cognitive tools are learner controlled, not teacher controlled or technology driven. For example, when students construct databases, they are constructing their own conceptualization of the organization of the content domain. Cognitive tools are not designed to reduce information processing, that is, make a task easier, as has been the goal of instructional design as a field and many previous instructional innovations. Nor are they "fingertip" tools (Perkins, 1993) that learners use naturally, effortlessly, and effectively. Rather, cognitive tools are essential components of a learning environment in which learners are required to think harder about the subject-matter domain being studied or the task being undertaken and to generate thoughts that would be impossible without these tools.

As noted above, cognitive tools are reflection tools that amplify, extend, and even reorganize human mental powers to help learners construct their own realities and complete challenging tasks. However, the enormous potential of cognitive tools can only be realized within a constructivist framework for learning. Moreover, the nature and source of the task becomes paramount in such an environment. Past failures of "tool" approaches to using computers in education can be largely attributed to the relegation of the tools to traditional academic tasks set by teachers or the curriculum within the context of outmoded instructivist pedagogy.

Cognitive tools are best used by students to represent knowledge and solve problems within the context of pursuing investigations that are relevant to their own lives. Those investigations are ideally elicited or supported by a constructivist learning environment (Duffy, Lowyck & Jonassen, 1993). Cognitive tools are less likely to be effective when used to support only teacher-controlled or curriculum-driven tasks.

24.3.7 (Un)intelligent Tools

Education communications too often try to do the thinking for learners, to act like tutors and guide teaming. During the last decade, the most exalted form of educational communications systems have been called intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) (Chapter 19; Polson & Richardson, 1988). ITS possess some degree of "intelligence," usually in the form of expert and student models that are used to make instructional decisions about how much and what kind of instruction learners need. In the face of the disappointing results of ITS, some experts suggest that "the appropriate role for a computer is not that of a teacher/expert but rather that of a mind-extension 'cognitive tool"' (Derry & Lajoie, 1993, p. 5). Cognitive tools, as we conceive them, are unintelligent tools, relying on the learner to provide the intelligence, not the computer. This means that planning, decision making, and self-regulation are the responsibility of the learner, not the technology. Cognitive tools can serve as powerful catalysts for facilitating these skills, assuming that they are used in ways that promote reflection, discussion, and collaborative problem solving.

24.3.8 Distributed Cognitive Processing

Cognitive technologies may be provided by any medium that helps learners transcend the limitations of their minds, such as limits on memory, thinking, or problem solving (Pea, 1985). The most pervasive cognitive technology is language. Imagine trying to learn to do something complex without the use of language. Language amplifies the thinking of the learner. Computers may also function as cognitive tools for amplifying and reorganizing the ways that learners think.

Computer-based cognitive tools can function as intellectual partners that share the cognitive burden of carrying out tasks (Salomon, 1993). When learners use computers as partners, they off-load some of the unproductive memorizing tasks to the computer, allowing themselves to think more productively. Perkins (1993) claims that learning does not result from solitary, unsupported thinking by learners. Cognitive tools enable us to allocate to ourselves the responsibility for the cognitive processing we do best, while we allocate to the technology the processing that it does best.

Rather than focusing on microlevel decisions about message design and media presentation features on a computer screen, researchers should seek to reveal the nature of interactions and collaborations between the learner and the computer. Unfortunately, most of the research in our field has investigated how we can use the limited capabilities of the computer to present information and judge learner input (neither of which computers do well) while asking learners to memorize information and later recall it on tests (which computers do with far greater speed and accuracy than humans; see Chapter 39). The cognitive tools approach assumes that we will assign cognitive responsibility to the part of the learning system that does it best. The learner should be responsible for recognizing and judging patterns of information and then organizing it, while the computer should perform calculations, store information, and retrieve it on the learner's command. When cognitive tools function as intellectual partners, the performance of the learner is enhanced, leaving some "cognitive residue" in the learner that may transfer in situations where the learner encounters the tool again or even to situations where the tool is inaccessible (Salomon, 1993).

24.3.9 Summary of the Foundations for Cognitive Tools Research

The following principles sum up the foundations for the research findings reviewed in the rest of this chapter:

  • Cognitive tools will have their greatest effectiveness when they are applied within constructivist learning environments.
  • Cognitive tools empower learners to design their own representations of knowledge rather than absorbing knowledge representations preconceived by others.
  • Cognitive tools can be used to support the deep reflective thinking that is necessary for meaningful learning.
  • As a form of cognitive technology, cognitive tools have two kinds of important cognitive effects, those that are with the technology in terms of intellectual partnerships and those that are of the technology in terms of cognitive residue that remains after the cognitive tools are used.
  • Cognitive tools enable mindful, challenging learning, rather than the effortless learning promised but rarely realized by other instructional innovations.
  • The source of the tasks or problems to which cognitive tools are applied should be learners, guided by teachers and other resources in the learning environment.
  • Ideally, tasks or problems for the application of cognitive tools should be situated in realistic contexts, with results that are personally meaningful for learners.
  • Cognitive tools do not contain preconceived intelligence in the sense that intelligent tutoring systems are claimed to possess, but they do enable intellectual partnerships in the form of distributed cognitive processing.

Updated August 3, 2001
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