John Dewey argued that for education to be democratic, it is important for students to be not merely spectators but also participants in learning. Teachers sometimes find personal computing devices to be distracting or to contribute to passivity rather than activity in the classroom. In this essay we examine the question of whether a student’s Google search on a subject matter discussed in class is participatory or passive. We argue that with proper guidance students’ use of online searches and related tools can empower students democratically as sources of ideas, conceptualizations, information, and insight while emphasizing participation in deliberation and judgment in the classroom. We begin with a look at the criticisms and then defenses of using online tools in the classroom. Finally, we examine Dewey’s distinction between the spectator versus the participant models of learning to apply his insights to the use of online tools in the classroom.

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Available for download on Saturday, May 02, 2026