Edtech for Edleaders: What Computers Do

We are all amazed at the power of computers. They can do so much that humans cannot… they extend our cognitive abilities… they can be leveraged for so many purposes. Or at least that is the narrative that surrounds computers and digital devices, but computers really can do only a few things well. By recognizing these “things” and using computers and networks or these things (and no others), then we will gain the advantages afforded by the devices, while avoiding the frustrations of trying to use them for functions they are not designed to perform.

book coverIn my 2015 book, I included a section titled “Leverage ICT.” That brief section is here:

The idea of using new technology for cognitive tasks has been well-received by some and ill-received by others, and that has been true throughout human history, especially at transitions when one dominant technology was being replaced by another. Using computers to support human cognition was a central theme of information theorist Vannevar Bush’s seminal article in 1945. In 21st century terms, many cognitive tasks traditionally learned by students in classrooms can be offloaded to computers, and thus facilitate knowledge building. By anthropomorphizing ICT, its capacities that can be leveraged for knowledge building can be illustrated.

Networked ICT listens and shouts. Messages sent to a particular email account (for example) can be received anytime and real simple syndication (for example) systems can be configured to receive those feeds of interest to any account holder. In effect the ICT selectively listens with patience and precision as instructed by a human. Similarly, humans can send messages over ICT that can be received in seconds (by specified individuals or by anyone) all around the globe; over networks messages travel faster and further than the sounds of human shouts.

Computer systems remember far longer and with far more reliability than humans. A word processing file can be stored indefinitely on a read only memory (ROM) disk, and (as long as the file is not corrupted) it can be recalled in its exact form at any time in the future. Related to the capacity to remember is the capacity to copy; once a digital file is recalled from memory, it can be stored again as a different file with ease. Also, a copy of a digital file is identical to the original, so the fidelity of digital information is not degraded as copies are made and as copies of copies are made. Further, copies can be made with a marginal cost that approaches zero; once a computer system is purchased and powered, saving copies of files adds nothing to the expense of the system.

ICT follows rules with precision and speed. Combined with computers’ ability to remember rules reliably and indefinitely, this is the capacity that is used to perform mathematical computations. Both simple and redundant calculations and complex and multi-step calculations can be facilitated using this capacity of computers. Further, rule-based processes such as alphabetizing or sorting data by date can be accomplished with precision and speed using the rule-following capacity of computers. In situations where the cognition of algorithm-based operations is performed by ICT, humans can use their cognition to understand the meaning of the operations.

Computers can compare information quickly and reliably. This capacity has been applied to many search tasks; any search word or term can be identified in vast information sources with immediacy, and complex queries using multiple criteria and Boolean logic.

While studying the design of ICT systems, James Williams (2004) defined fundamental characteristics of tasks that influence how individuals are aware of the tasks: a) the perceived importance of the task, b) the frequency with which it is done, c) the time needed to perform it, and d) the complexity and difficulty of the task. Through the judicious application of ICT, educators can complete tasks efficaciously by automating redundant tasks and educators can minimize the cognitive load and the intrusiveness of tasks and can transfer some tasks to ICT to allow other aspects of the task to be accomplished by humans.

As a science teacher, I frequently used microscopes, and typically mine was the first class in which students had used these tools. So that they would understand the directions for using microscopes, I assigned my students the task of learning the parts of the microscope before placing specimens on the stages and making observations. I understood this to be an important task, that was of low complexity and time-consuming, but I was reluctant to give students expensive tools until I tested and re-tested them until they knew the parts. In an ICT-free classroom, I was compelled to provide time to instruct and review the parts, prepare a pencil-and-paper quiz and then correct it; repeating each step until I was confident students had a sufficient level of understanding. Further, I was obligated to record those quiz grades into a grade register, and then include those scores in the calculation of grades at the end of reporting periods. In the ICT-rich classroom, I can instruct students in the parts I expect them to know once and make that instruction available online (or find another teacher who has given similar instruction and whose video is available online), and then point students to it to review as necessary. Then, the quiz can be administered using ICT, and the ICT can be programmed to identify correct answers and scores can immediately be recorded in the register and included in grade calculations. (This assumes that the quiz and grade register have been programmed to complete the necessary operations.) In this setting, the cognitive tasks related to this simple curriculum are transferred to ICT, and as a community, we can use microscopes to build knowledge of that which cannot be seen with our eyes.


Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly 176(1), 101-108.

Williams, James. 2004. Developing Performance Support for Computer Systems: A Strategy for Maximizing Usability and Learnability. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.