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Tool literacy as a new process

I’ve been thinking a bit about the notion of app smashing and the way we introduce learning challenges in our classrooms and libraries.  And I am thinking there’s a thinking process going on that we’re not thinking about nearly enough.

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The Evolution of the Desk by Best Reviews

Introducing a tool and saying you are going to use this tool to tell this story is kinda like saying go to page 347 and do exercises three through five.

The notion of app smashing was coined by Greg Kulowiec (@gregkulowiec) of EdTechTeacher   Loosely, it’s the process of using multiple applications together in order to  to complete complex tasks or projects.sinek

I think the word process is important.

We need to learn how to leverage the tools on our new desks.  We need to make conscious choices about the way we manage information and communication workflow in a way that is entirely anti-worksheet.   For any of the tools we use, we need to master notions of their affordances and constraints.

Affordances are the possible ways a tools could be used by an individual in a particular context.  Affordances change with the individual and are affected by our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs, as well as our imaginations as they relate to a particular technology.  Consider your own phone.  In how many ways have you found ways to use it that may not have been intentionally considered in its original design?

I’ve been engaging in a bit of metaphorical thinking around tool literacy:

It’s a bit like building a piña colada out of Jelly Belly jelly beans.  But, better . . .

It’s a bit like the difference between the cook who works off recipes and the creative chef who knows what each flavor can contribute to a dish and plays with their combinations and continually makes discoveries.

It’s a bit like conducting an orchestra rather than playing one instrument.  It’s about knowing when to bring in the violins or the oboe or the snare drum.  It’s about knowing how to manage tone and tempo, and phrasing and interpretation. It’s about teasing out musical nuance and bringing a musical composition to life.

Why think about smashing as process or as tool literacy?

  • To inspire creative, individual thinking and innovation
  • To build understanding that tools need to be evaluated/tested for affordances & constraints
  • To inspire more individual products of learning
  • To understand app categories/genres and affordances
  • To play, experiment, make discoveries
  • To engage learners in thinking workflow as process
  • To inspire kiddos to build dashboards to manage their information lives
  • To engage learners in problem solving
  • To enable kids/teachers to recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts–that one app or platform on its own may not magically serve our every need
  • To push the creation of seriously original work created in ways never before possible

The notion of tool literacy does not replace other processes, the inquiry process, for instance.  I think it runs parallel, perhaps as secondary to them.

(Here are some images I shared in a recent presentation.)

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And I believe librarians are critical in understanding tool literacy as a creative process.  Beyond making content and tools discoverable, I believe we are responsible for helping learners create their own dashboards and palettes, and new types of desks that encourage choice and promote innovative and personally directed workflow.

Here are a few of my other posts on rethinking smashing or curation

Evolution of the Desk. (2014)  Harvard Innovation Lab. Engineering by Anton Georgiev. Photography by DougThomsen.TV.

Gibson, J. J. (1977). The concept of affordances. Perceiving, acting, and knowing, 67-82.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Hello, Joyce and thank you for sharing these insights and resources. I have been doing some research on digital literacy, and I am finding myself pushing the practice of digital fluency. Literacy satisfies the “how” to use a digital tool, but my early understanding of digital fluency is that it reaches for the “when” and “why” to use digital tools. More here;
    To me, this is where app smashing shines; learners develop their digital fluency choosing the appropriate instrument to express and share their learning.
    Thank you for providing this forum – I enjoyed connecting and learning in this way.

  2. Joyce Valenza Joyce Valenza says

    Thanks, Robert! I agree.

    I see these skills and disposition, the understanding of when and why, as fluency too. My choice of language here has to do with positioning this among a set of other fluencies (data fluency, for instance), that most people discuss as literacies.

    Thank you for helping to expand our thinking!

  3. Hi Joyce! Thinking more about putting this into practice. May be in having students create “Digital Tool Belt” portals” for personal curation and reflection.. After using a tool, students can go to their tool belt portal to reflect on the tool and consider how they might use in the future. When they have a need, whether their own or one which is required for them to meet, they can go to their portal and figure out the best tool, or combination of tools, to use for the need. This is the kind of thinking TL’s need to promote. It’s an example of giving students a strategy for problem solving.

  4. Smashing tool greatly explained. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideals on this app for the learning process.

  5. Mary Reilley-Clark says

    Deb Schiano and I are on the same wave-length! Last week I worked with 7th grade science students and used the tool box analogy with them. I want them to have an understanding of which digital tools would be best for an assignment and to start building a digital tool box that works for them. (I also want teachers to be more comfortable with students submitting work using the tool that works best for them, instead of requiring everyone to use Slides, Docs, etc.)

    I love Deb’s idea about reflection after the process, too. Thanks to both of you for some great information to share with teachers!

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