Thoughts from the Recent Special Issue of AJET on Cognitive Tools

By Chris Drew, Guest Editor for the AJET special issue on Cognitive Tools.

After 12 months of hard work by AJET authors and reviewers the special issue on Cognitive Tools was released by AJET this month.

To mark the release of the special issue, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on why the Cognitive Tools concept appealed to me in the first place as a university teacher.

As several of the papers in the Special Issue indicate, ‘cognitive tools’ is a term that’s lost some of its momentum over the past decade, but one I think remains worthy of our contemplation. The first paper in the special issue presents an interesting overview of the stagnating popularity of the cognitive tools concept over time:

Figure 1. Distribution over time of articles referring to the use of cognitive tools for learning. Reproduced from: Pakdaman-Savoji, Nesbit & Gajdamaschko (2019, p. 7)

It appears from the graph that the popularity of the concept may be faltering. Nonetheless, I think the topic is worth re-examining, and for the rest of this post, I’ll share my thoughts on why.

What are Cognitive Tools?

The cognitive tools metaphor brings a constructivist theoretical perspective to educational technology research. It emphasises that educational technologies need to be used with the explicit purpose of support and progressing students’ cognitive capacities.

Perhaps the most influential theorist of cognitive tools was David Jonassen (1995), who in the 1990s was prolific in promoting the concept. He postulated two major ways computers are used in schools:

  • Learning from technology: This is a transmissive view of educational technologies. It sees the role of technology as a tool that tells learners what to learn and assesses them on how well they learned the prescribed content.
  • Learning with technology: This is a constructivist view of educational technologies which sees them as a facilitator of learning. They do not prescribe exact answers. Rather, they help facilitate higher-order thinking and strategically share cognitive load to allow students to think deeply and critically about ideas.

A cognitive tool, according to Jonassen, was about learning with computers. Here, Jonassen and his colleagues followed a long tradition of constructivist learning theorists and applied this theoretical viewpoint to the study of educational technologies.

There are endless examples of cognitive tools. However, what I find interesting is that it’s perhaps not the tool that makes something a ‘cognitive tool’ but how the tool is put to use.

For example, this blog post on types of cognitive tools, highlights that calculators could be cognitive tools, but only in certain circumstances. The tool’s use must actually support students’ cognitive development in order for it to be a cognitive tool. If a calculator is used to answer a question for the student, it would be taking all of the cognitive burden of the task and therefore not be a cognitive tool.

On the other hand, if the calculator is used to take the load of lower-order calculations so that the learner can sustain their focus on the higher-order problem solving in a mathematical problem, it may be considered a cognitive tool because it helps facilitate learning without taking the cognitive load for the key elements of the learning task.

Why is the Concept Appealing?

The concept of cognitive tools remains very relevant in higher education, despite the apparent petering out of its use in scholarly literature.

For starters, I find it a very accessible way to get university students (and, by and large for my students, pre-service teachers) to think about how to use educational technologies in ways that explicitly promote learning.

When lecturing on educational technologies, I found the cognitive tools metaphor would help focus my students’ mind on why we have educational technologies in the first place. They’re not in our classrooms so we can learn about technology; nor are technologies in our classrooms so they can solve our problems for us.

Quality educational technology implementation involves using technology to help extend students’ learning.

By applying the cognitive tool test, students, teachers and researchers are more capable of assessing the value and applicability of an educational technology to a lesson.

Where to From Here?

As several of the authors in the recent special issue on cognitive tools in AJET argue, there’s a need to move towards a view of cognitive tools as that recognises the enhanced affordances of emerging technologies. Here are just two examples of where the cognitive tools research may be extended:

  • Research on wearable technologies: with internet-connected watches, smartphones and augmented reality glasses, cognitive tools now have greater potential for contextual in situ learning (see, for example, Bower & Sturman, 2015). Learners can gather additional data while in the research field which can enable enhanced reflection-in-practice and more informed on-the-spot decision making.
  • The intersection of motivation and cognition in educational technology research: There is an abundance of research on the importance of bringing motivational activities into the classroom. Is it the case, as Ge, Turk and Hung (2019) argue, that we need to more effectively bring together motivational and constructivist theories of learning and teaching? Perhaps tools that simultaneously promote both motivation and cognition will have significant benefits for learners’ cognitive development.

Please feel free to share in the comments below your thoughts on the future of cognitive tools in higher education and the role of constructivist theories of learning and teaching in educational technology research. Is there a need for the concept of cognitive tools to evolve as technologies and educational research progress?

Works Cited

Bower, M., & Sturman, D. (2015). What are the educational affordances of wearable technologies?. Computers & Education, 88, 343-353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.07.013

Ge, X., Turk, M., & Hung, W. (2019). Revisiting cognitive tools from a social and motivational perspective. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(2), 39–51. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.4887

Helpful Professor (2019). 5+ Examples of Cognitive Tools for the Ed-Tech Teacher. Retrieved from: https://helpfulprofessor.com/cognitive-tools/

Jonassen, D. H. (1995). Computers as cognitive tools: Learning with technology, not from technology. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 6(2), 40–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02941038

Pakdaman-Savoji, A., Nesbit,J.C., & Gajdamaschko, N. (2019). The conceptualisation of cognitive tools in learning and teachnology: A review. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(2), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.4704

1 thought on “Thoughts from the Recent Special Issue of AJET on Cognitive Tools

  1. Our work re. Digital Technology Competencies is based on the General Technology Competency and Use Framework (https://eilab.ca/general-technology-competency-use/). The framework includes competencies within, what we call, the epistemological order (EO). This order was created using the ideas of David Jonassen, but we also adapted some of the ideas of Seymour Papert in that epistemological tools are those that allow for cognitive partnerships to be established between humans and computers. EO competencies require knowledge of a domain as well as the ability to assign a task to a computer so that humans can focus on higher-order thinking about the results of the task assignment. We in the Educational Informatics Laboratory (EILab.ca) are constantly looking to partner with more organizations and institutions in collaborative analysing data collected through the instruments that we have constructed based on the GTCU. Feel free to contact me at Ontario Tech University.

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