It’s Not the
AS I SEE “IT”
By Don Hall
Don Hall is the CIO
for the Muscogee
County School District
in Columbus, Georgia.
He has experience in
teaching and administration and is a veteran presenter, author,
and consultant. He
serves as a volunteer
columnist for L&L.
When I hear the term cool tools, many questions come to mind. What defines cool and who defines it? Also, when
does something actually become a useful tool
versus a cool toy?
In my last column, I talked about how innovation is in the eye of the beholder and how
it represents more of a cultural shift than a
technological one. When you think about what
defines cool, the very notion is rooted in cultural
context. Cool is transitory and is a reflection of
a particular subgroup’s values, whether we are
talking about fashion, nightclubs, or travel
This also holds true in education and technology. Ed tech pioneers and the vendors that serve
them define cool. Early adopters will always be
the ones who write the songs of praise for new
technology. It will not be the late adopters or the
resisters; by the time they adopt, the technology
has become mainstream or extinct.
Another aspect of cool is that it doesn’t last.
By the time adults begin to adopt most technology, it has become passé to most students.
The glitz factor will have worn off, or will very
quickly once the technology is introduced into
class. The motivational component we count
on technology to deliver—increasing student
engagement in instruction—will be short lived.
And that becomes problematic if we rely solely
on the introduction of cool tools instead of on
What about the word tools in the phrase?
The anthropological definition of a tool is any
implement designed to perform a useful func-
tion or conduct work, but that is too broad for
public education. We prefer narrow boundaries
to ensure safety and control for the good of the
students. As a result, when the outside world introduces new tools, our educational institutions
struggle with how to deal with them.
As with most bureaucracies, the most efficient
way to address this situation is to establish policies to restrict the use of tools that fall outside
the traditional definition of tools for schools. We
see this more prevalently with cell phones, MP3
players, and even personal laptops. We prohibit
these devices on campus today for many reasons,
some of which sound quite legitimate. However,
if you spend time with the decision makers and
probe deeper, what you usually find is a lack of
understanding. It can range from not knowing
the device’s capability, alternatives for control,
and beneficial uses to core operational issues.
Of all the issues involved with restrictiveness,
the one that concerns me most is when educators talk about technology promoting cheating
or destroying academic integrity. This statement
raises a red flag, indicating to me that there is a
serious disconnect between the technology and
instructional leadership in the school district.
If a student can send the answers to an assessment by cell phone or other electronic device
to another student, then either you are asking
the wrong type of assessment questions or the
student is a genius and doesn’t need to take the
Do you need to worry about cool tools? No.
Just like hem lengths, nightclubs, and hairstyles,
cool tools will come and go. My best advice is
to focus on the effective use of tools—not their
10 Learning & Leading with Technology | November 2009