Learning From Technology

Some of the first educational technologies were illustrations in 17th-century books and slate chalkboards in 18th-century classrooms. Educational technologies in the 20th century include lantern-slide and opaque projectors, later radio, and then motion pictures. During the 1950s, programmed instruction emerged as the first true educational technology, that is, the first technology developed specifically to meet educational needs. With every other technology, including computers, educators recognized its importance and debated how to apply each nascent commercial technology for educational purposes. Unfortunately, educators have almost always tried to use technologies to teach students in the same ways that teachers had always taught. So information was recorded in the technology (e.g., the content presented by films and television programs), and the technology presented that information to the students. The students’ role was to learn the information presented by the technology, just as they learned information presented by the teacher. The role of the technology was to deliver lessons to students, just as trucks deliver groceries to supermarkets (Clark, 1983). If you deliver groceries, people will eat. If you deliver instruction, students will learn. Not necessarily! We will tell you why later.

The introduction of modern computer technologies in classrooms has followed the same pattern of use. Before the advent of microcomputers in the 1980s, mainframe computers were used to deliver drill and practice and simple tutorials for teaching students lessons. When microcomputers began populating classrooms, the natural inclination was to use them in the same way. A 1983 national survey of computer uses showed that drill and practice was the most common use of microcomputers (Becker, 1985).

Later in the 1980s, educators began to perceive the importance of computers as productivity tools. The growing popularity of word processing, databases, spreadsheets, graphics programs, and desktop publishing was enabling businesses to become more productive. So students in classroom began word processing and using graphics packages and desktop publishing programs to write with. This tool conception pervaded computer use according to a 1993 study by Hadley and Sheingold that showed that well-informed teachers were extensively using text processing tools (word processors), analytic and information tools (especially databases and some spreadsheet use), and graphics tools (paint programs and desktop publishing) along with instructional software (including problem-solving programs along with drill and practice and tutorials).

The development of inexpensive multimedia computers and the eruption of the Internet in the mid-1990s quickly changed the nature of educational computing. Communications tools (e.g., e-mail and computer conferences) and multimedia, little used according to Hadley and Sheingold, have dominated the role of technologies in the classroom ever since. But what are the students producing? Too often, they are using the technology to reproduce what the teacher or textbook told them or what they copy from the Internet.

Our conception of educational computing and technology use, described next, does not conceive of technologies as teachers or repositories of information. Rather, we believe that, in order to learn, students should teach the computer or use the technology to represent what they know rather than memorizing what teachers and textbooks tell them. Technologies provide rich and flexible media for representing what students know and what they are learning. A great deal of research on computers and other technologies has shown that they are no more effective at teaching students than teachers, but if we begin to think about technologies as learning tools that students learn with, not from, then the nature of student learning will change.

Learning With Technology

If schools are to foster meaningful learning, then the ways that we use technologies in schools must change from technology-as-teacher to technology-as-partner in the learning process. Before, we argued that students do not learn from technology but that technologies can support productive thinking and meaning making by students. That will happen when students learn with the technology. But how do students learn with technologies? How can technologies become intellectual partners with students? We assume the following:

  • Technology is more than hardware. Technology consists also of the designs and the environments that engage learners. Technology can also consist of any reliable technique or method for engaging learning, such as cognitive learning strategies and critical thinking skills.
  • Learning technologies can be any environment or definable set of activities that engage learners in active, constructive, intentional, authentic, and cooperative learning.
  • Technologies are not conveyors or communicators of meaning. Nor should they prescribe and control all of the learner interactions.
  • Technologies support meaningful learning when they fulfill a learning need—when interactions with technologies are learner initiated and learner controlled and when interactions with the technologies are conceptually and intellectually engaging.
  • Technologies should function as intellectual tool kits that enable learners to build more meaningful personal interpretations and representations of the world. These tool kits must support the intellectual functions that are required by a course of study.
  • Learners and technologies should be intellectual partners, where the cognitive responsibility for performance is distributed by the part of the partnership that performs it better.

How Technologies Foster Learning

If technologies are used to foster meaningful learning, then they will not be used as delivery vehicles. Rather, technologies should be used as engagers and facilitators of thinking. Based on our conception of meaningful learning, we suggest the following roles for technologies in supporting meaningful learning:

  • Technology as tools to support knowledge construction:
    • for representing learners’ ideas, understandings, and beliefs
    • for producing organized, multimedia knowledge bases by learners
  • Technology as information vehicle for exploring knowledge to support learning by constructing:
    • for accessing needed information
    • for comparing perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews
  • Technology as authentic context to support learning by doing:
    • for representing and simulating meaningful real-world problems, situations, and contexts
    • for representing beliefs, perspectives, arguments, and stories of others
    • for defining a safe, controllable problem space for student thinking
  • Technology as social medium to support learning by conversing:
    • for collaborating with others
    • for discussing, arguing, and building consensus among members of a community
    • for supporting discourse among knowledge-building communities
  • Technology as intellectual partner (Jonassen, 2000) to support learning by reflecting:
    • for helping learners to articulate and represent what they know
    • for reflecting on what they have learned and how they came to know it
    • for supporting learners’ internal negotiations and meaning making
    • for constructing personal representations of meaning
    • for supporting mindful thinking

How Technologies Foster Thinking

Why do these uses of technology foster meaningful learning? It is because they require that students think and reason. In this book, we argue that students do not learn from teachers or from technologies. Rather, students learn from thinking—thinking about what they are doing or what they did, thinking about what they believe, thinking about what others have done and believe, thinking about the thinking processes they use—just thinking and reasoning. Thinking mediates learning. Learning results from thinking. What kinds of thinking are fostered when learning with technologies?


Causal reasoning is one of the most basic and important cognitive processes that underpin all higher-order activities, such as problem solving. Hume called causality the “cement of the universe” (Hume, 1739/2000). Reasoning from a description of a condition or set of conditions or states of an event to the possible effect(s) that may result from those states is called prediction. A baseball pitcher predicts where the ball will go by the forces that he or she applies when pitching the ball. When an outcome or state exists for which the causal agent is unknown, then an inference is required. That is, reasoning backward from effect to cause requires the process of inference. A primary function of inferences is diagnosis. For example, based on symptoms, historical factors, and test results of patients who are thought to be abnormal, a physician attempts to infer the cause(s) of that illness state. Thinking causally is also required for making explanations. Explaining how things work requires learner to identify all the causal connections among the things being explained.

Causal thinking is really more complex than learners understand. In order to be able to understand and apply causal relationships, learners must be able to quantify attributes of causal relationships (direction, strength, probability, and duration) as well as be able to explain the underlying mechanisms describing the relationship (Jonassen & Ionas, 2007). Why does a force applied to a ball cause it to move in certain direction?


If you distill cognitive psychology into a single principle, it would be to use analogies to convey and understand new ideas. That is, understanding a new idea is best accomplished by comparing and contrasting it to an idea that is already understood. In an analogy, the properties or attributes of one idea (the analogue) are mapped or transferred to another (the source or target). Single analogies are also known as synonyms or metaphors. One word conveys attributes to the other, often using the word “like” or “as” as a connector. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans was said to be inundated with a “toxic gumbo.” Gumbo is a complex New Orleans–style soup that contains a variety of ingredients. The waters that surrounded New Orleans contained a complex variety of toxic substances—thus metaphor as analogy.

People most commonly think of syllogism as analogies. A syllogism is a four-part analogy. For example, love is to hate as peace is to ———. The analogy makes sense only if the structural characteristics of the first analogy can be applied to the second.

In using technologies to represent their understanding, students consistently are required to engage in the comparison–contrast reasoning required to structurally map the attributes of one or more idea to others, that is, to draw an analogy.


Using technologies as tools to learn with entails learners representing what they know, that is, teaching the computer. To do so, learners must express what they know. Using different tools requires learners to express what they know in different ways. Technologies can be used to help learners express themselves in writing. Learners can express themselves using a variety of tools, such as databases, spreadsheets, and expert systems, each tool requiring different forms of expression. Ttechnologies can support verbal expression, while chapter 9 focuses on visual expressions. Contrast these varieties of expressions to those required by state-mandated tests, where students’ only form of expressions is the selection of answer a, b, c, or d.


Experiences result in the most meaningful and resistant memories. We can recall with clarity experiences that we have had many years before. The primary medium for expressing experiences is the story. Stories are the oldest and most natural form of sense making. Stories are the “means [by] which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions” (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 11). Cultures have maintained their existence through different types of stories, including myths, fairy tales, and histories. Humans appear to have an innate ability and predisposition to organize and represent their experiences in the form of stories. Learning with technologies engages stories in a couple ways. First, the experiences that students have while using technologies to represent their understanding are meaningful and memorable. Second, students may seek out stories and use technologies to convey them.

Problem Solving

Using technologies to express and convey learner knowledge all entail different kinds of problems solving. Learning with technologies requires that students make myriad decisions while constructing their representations. Deciding what information to include and exclude, how to structure the information, and what form it should take are all complex decision-making processes. Students also engage in a lot of design problem solving while constructing their interpretations. They also must solve rule-using problems in how to use software. When learners are solving problems, they are thinking deeply and are engaged in meaningful learning. What they learn while doing so will be so much better understood and remembered than continuously preparing to answer multiple-choice test questions.