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BELLTONES: Computers as Mindtools--Homage to David Jonassen

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Nov 6, 2013
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Sometimes I feel like a walking history resource. In computer and internet techno-years I have been around for a very, very long time. In fact, I can remember life without television, never mind computers and the internet! Somewhere along the way, though, I was captivated with technology and the promises it offers to educators. This interest was great enough to pursue doctoral studies with a cognate in educational technology. All along the way, I have striven to continually look ahead. What’s next? What will be the next great device or idea that will get us all excited about technology and learning? There is little time to stand still, much less look back, if I want to stay relevant.

About a month ago, though, I had a passing thought about days past. Specifically, I wondered about one of the wise leaders who has influenced my thinking since the mid-1990s. As a student, I was introduced to a number of ideas that became the foundation of my career. David H. Jonassen is the one expert whose ideas I have built upon more than any other resource. He wrote a book titled Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking that espoused a philosophy of educational technology that has had a major effect on my own thinking and also on the direction of the master of library science program at the university where I teach. Recently, it occurred to me to do a search and see what Jonassen had been doing since I had last looked him up online. I had kept up with his writings as he continued to build on and update his original book, but I had lost track of him in the last few years. The search led me to the sad news that he passed away in December 2012, having battled lung cancer for several years.

After I assimilated this information, I thought to myself, “Surely I have written about mindtools before? I wonder where, and how recently?” A review of previous articles and columns revealed that I have not done so and thus leads me to this particular piece. Way back in the mid-1990s, Jonassen coined a term that epitomizes what we should be about with regard to technology and education. That word was mindtools. To me, it stands for an approach toward technology in schools that is ever relevant. The idea is that technology should not be an end in and of itself but rather a means to an end.

The result should be encouraging kids to build knowledge themselves, by the means of critical and constructive thinking. Jonassen was a constructivist and made that clear in his work. But I think applying a label to his thinking is to run the risk of limiting it. What he espoused is simple common sense, and I am aware that such a thing is rare in many educational reform circles today. At the risk of oversimplifying, if we, as teachers, professors, and librarians fail to use technology to cause students to think, we might as well throw all our toys, gizmos, smart devices, apps, and programs into the nearest body of water. Of course that would be bad for the environment, but using such tools as gee-whiz fads is bad for our schools’ mental environments.

Mindtools Revisited

So what is a mindtool? The short answer is that a mindtool is anything that you use to make kids think. With this broad definition, a piece of chalk or a stick to scratch in the dirt can be mindtools. The very first sentence in Jonassen’s first book about mindtools states, “The term Mindtool represents a concept, not a real entity.” Jonassen differentiates between learning from computers, as in computer-assisted instruction; learning about computers, which is the domain of computer literacy; and learning with computers, which is the purview of mindtools. Jonassen goes on to say, “They are knowledge construction and facilitation tools that can be applied to a variety of subject-matter domains.” In addition to this basic definition, Jonassen offered some attributes of a mindtool. Although the specific applications are changing as technology changes, I believe the characteristics are still valid as we evaluate what tools to use with students and how they should be implemented.

* First of all, a mindtool should be computer-based. For his purposes, Jonassen wanted to focus on technology, which even back in the 1990s was changing and growing at a dizzying rate.

* A mindtool should be generalizable. This means that it should be an application or device that can be used in many different ways to learn in multiple subjects.

* The tool should be available, rather than being something difficult to find or obtain.

* It should be affordable. Today’s array of free online applications makes this quality even more available than it was 20 years ago.

* A mindtool should foster knowledge representation. This means that the application should go beyond the mundane and encourage users to develop their own creations in
order to demonstrate what they
have learned.

* Finally, a mindtool should be easy to learn and use. This is so the real purpose of use is not mastering the tool, but rather using it as a means to construct and represent critical and constructive learning. A student’s time and effort should be focused on how to use the application to demonstrate learning about the subject at hand rather than on mastering the use of the tool itself.

Jonassen went on in his books to cite some examples of the types of tools that he would consider mindtools. These include mindmaps, databases, spreadsheets, intelligent search engines, and visualization tools. He also included hypermedia, which we are more likely to call presentation tools such as Prezi and even the old favorite PowerPoint. Long before the coining of the term Web 2.0, Jonassen espoused applications that fostered communication and collaboration. Jonassen added that he would never want to limit the definition of mindtools to just those things he described. The conceptual idea was and is far more important than the specific tools.

Surely if I could communicate with Jonassen today, he would be enthusiastic about the many Web 2.0 resources that we have, and the number seems to increase daily. There are so many easily accessible and easily mastered resources available, for free or at low cost, that it is impossible to offer an exhaustive list. Jonassen made it clear from the first that he welcomed anybody to use his term and the ideas behind it to foster knowledge construction, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Once again, asking online colleagues for input via Facebook and listservs, I obtained great ideas for examples of Web 2.0 mindtools. The following list comes from my own favorites and from those shared with me:

* A good starting place is traditional office suites such as Microsoft Office but with one disclaimer. It is certainly not necessary to turn to expensive products from Microsoft when we have Google Docs, Evernote, and so many other free alternatives. Office suites are certainly the bread and butter of school life and business. In order to use components as mindtools, though, they must be used to foster creative and critical thinking. Writing a paragraph about what I did last summer may not fit the bill, but using drawing tools to create a representation of my favorite summer memories would be another thing entirely. Indeed, using drawing tools in any application gives students a chance to build and share knowledge creatively. And despite its long history of misuse, PowerPoint can still be used creatively.

* Because I have an interest in visual literacy, I think Web 2.0 tools that allow users to construct digital images are very powerful. Wordle and its cousins have revolutionized the way we sum up things we read or heard. Mind-mapping tools such as WiseMapping give learners myriad options for organizing and presenting knowledge.

Additional tools were shared by online friends, and they include the following:

* The tool that got the most mentions was Popplet, and I agree it offers many possibilities.

* Other tools that were mentioned include the following: Weebly, Piktochart, Edcanvas (now Blendspace), Glogster, Edmodo,
and Prezi.

* Of course, we do not want to leave out apps for smart devices, including Haiku Deck, MindMapper, Videolicious, Symbaloo, and ThingLink.

When I was a beginning teacher, I heard a speaker whose name I do not recall but whose message never left me. In fact, it is one of the most memorable things I ever learned via professional development. The speaker described a teacher she had known who worked on a reservation, teaching Native American children. There was no classroom. The students had no books. Supplies of any kind were hard to come by. Every day, they would gather around a large saguaro cactus and have lessons. The teacher would lead them in activities using what little paper and writing instruments they had. Instead of using a chalkboard or bulletin board, she would stick her visuals and students’ creations to that big cactus. Through the power of her presence and the creative lessons that she taught, those kids were excited about learning. I think Jonassen would say she was a master in the art of using mindtools. We will do well to look around at all the things we have and find ways to use them creatively to make kids think. 

Contact Mary Ann at

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