High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian

High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian

3.2 5
by Clifford Stoll
     
 
The cry for and against computers in the classroom is a topic of concern to parents, educators, and communities everywhere. Now, from a Silicon Valley hero and bestselling technology writer comes a pointed critique of the hype surrounding computers and their real benefits, especially in education. In High-Tech Heretic, Clifford Stoll questions the relentless

Overview

The cry for and against computers in the classroom is a topic of concern to parents, educators, and communities everywhere. Now, from a Silicon Valley hero and bestselling technology writer comes a pointed critique of the hype surrounding computers and their real benefits, especially in education. In High-Tech Heretic, Clifford Stoll questions the relentless drumbeat for "computer literacy" by educators and the computer industry, particularly since most people just use computers for word processing and games—and computers become outmoded or obsolete much sooner than new textbooks or a good teacher.

As one who loves computers as much as he disdains the inflated promises made on their behalf, Stoll offers a commonsense look at how we can make a technological world better suited for people, instead of making people better suited to using machines.

Editorial Reviews

Industry Standard
Distant Learning


Do computers belong in the schools? Should public libraries be cutting back on books in favor of PCs and Internet connections? Can you make an aquarium out of a used Mac?

The answer to one of these questions is yes, and Clifford Stoll has the goldfish to prove it. An Internet legend and well-known dissenter from the utopian hype that has sprung up around personal computers, Stoll assaults in his latest book the idea that computers and the Internet offer any special learning opportunities, attacking school administrators, librarians and gullible parents for thinking these machines, in the brief period between purchase and obsolescence, could possibly substitute for reading books and thinking critically with the help of a dedicated teacher.

These criticisms come from a man who knows a little something about computers. An avowed ex-hippie, Stoll was an astronomer and systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the 1980s when he noticed that he couldn't account for 75 cents worth of computer time. He investigated and discovered a hacker breaking into the system -- a spy, in fact, who wandered all over the network of U.S. military computers in search of sensitive data. Stoll's inspired sleuthing led to the intruder's capture in Europe, and Stoll's account of this drama was the basis for his best-selling first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, as well as an episode of the PBS program Nova. His next book was the provocative Silicon Snake Oil.

His latest, High-Tech Heretic, is a further critique of the idea that computers, networked or otherwise, represent a panacea in the complex business of living human lives. Stoll's book is written in what I call Net prose, a chipper, informal style that (perhaps unwittingly) owes much to modern advertising copy. It's inoffensive, somewhat flavorless and poses no problems to the vocabulary-challenged.

Fortunately, Stoll is a very smart guy who brings his skeptical intelligence to bear on some critical questions. This is a man who cares passionately about learning and its transmission, and he can't figure out how diverting students with computer exercises fosters understanding. He cites horrifying instances of schools shortchanging true pedagogy for machinery they're not properly equipped to use, and demolishes the arguments one by one for computers in schools.

To the idea that students will graduate into a world of ubiquitous computing, he says, "Automobiles are everywhere, too. They play a damned important part in our society and it's hard to get a job if you can't drive. ... But we don't teach automobile literacy."

To the notion that networked computers can keep curricula current, he scoffs, "The past two decades of research haven't greatly changed basic high-school math, physics and chemistry."

To the suggestion that computers make learning fun, he answers that real learning is unavoidably hard, and that computers merely substitute games. His arguments, like those of Yale computer scientist David Gelernter before him, are convincing. "Computer literacy" is an empty cliche that, for most people, means knowing how to type, backspace and click a mouse. In fact, Stoll doesn't think schools need much in the way of technology, aside from indoor plumbing and good light. He sees "distance learning" as a joke, and loathes the tendency of today's students to rely on calculators. He heaps scorn, too, on the idea that computers can somehow replace books in libraries.

In the vein of Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll is convinced the Internet isolates us (in part by enfolding us in useless data while real life is going on outside), rather than bringing us together. He says the Net is filled with junk, which of course it is, but doesn't credit its extraordinary usefulness as an everyday source of information, goods and services.

High-Tech Heretic is one of those books that makes me wonder anew why the Internet hasn't revived the monograph. Old-fashioned, single-subject tracts of this kind are impossible to sell as books, because they aren't long enough to justify a book's price, but they're too long for magazines.

On the Internet, however, people could buy them electronically, print them out and read them on paper. That way an author like Stoll wouldn't be tempted to pad a perfectly reasonable work on a worthwhile topic with lesser pieces that really aren't apropos.

At least he really make an aquarium from an old Mac. And showing his true colors (not Big Blue), he turns an old PC into a kitty litterbox.

—Daniel Akst writes frequently about money and investing.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stoll's first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, an exhilarating account of how he brought down a ring of computer hackers, was a 1989 bestseller. By 1995's Silicon Snake Oil, he'd become a digital apostate. He reiterates many of the points made in his second book here, focusing on the increasingly widespread use of computers in nurseries, preschools, classrooms and libraries. Throwing down the gauntlet in his introduction, he states, "I believe that a good school needs no computers. And a bad school won't be much improved by even the fastest Internet links. That a good teacher can handle her subject without any multimedia support.... That students, justifiably, recognize computer assignments primarily as entertainment, rather than education." In the first half of the book, he explains and justifies these beliefs: computers are expensive, quickly become obsolete and require maintenance by an expensive technical staff, usually paid for by eliminating other services (e.g., money for Internet connectivity sometimes comes from library budgets). He contends that computers and calculators work against familiarity with numbers, learning basic arithmetic and an understanding of algebra. Distance learning is a high-tech successor to correspondence schools, and neither has the impact or fascination of live courses, he believes. Stoll takes society's responsibility to educate children seriously, but his excessively anecdotal approach weakens his arguments, which would have been bolstered by a short bibliography. Still, there is much useful ammunition here for parents who share Stoll's views. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Computer gadfly Stoll is a prophet crying out in the high-tech wilderness. In this jeremiad against the cult of computing, particularly in the classroom, he argues that inspiring teachers, library books and journals, and human contact are far more important for students than the latest technology. Countering the clich s of Don Tapscott's Growing Up Digital (LJ 11/1/97) and Seymour Papert's The Connected Family (LJ 11/1/97), Stoll proclaims that because of overemphasis on acquiring computer literacy students are missing out on fundamental skills and experiences that make them well rounded. He agrees with Jane Healy, author of Failure To Connect (LJ 8/98), that computers are not good for young children and are used for entertainment more than education. Exceptionally readable, Stoll's book offers numerous anecdotes and research studies to support his argument. Continuing in the provocative vein of his Silicon Snake Oil, this is recommended for all libraries.--Laverna Saunders, Salem State Coll. Lib., MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Do computers belong in the schools? Should public libraries be cutting back on books in favor of PCs and Internet connections? Can you make an aquarium out of a used Mac?

The answer to one of these questions is yes, and Clifford Stoll has the goldfish to prove it. An Internet legend and well-known dissenter from the utopian hype that has sprung up around personal computers, Stoll assaults in his latest book the idea that computers and the Internet offer any special learning opportunities, attacking school administrators, librarians and gullible parents for thinking these machines, in the brief period between purchase and obsolescence, could possibly substitute for reading books and thinking critically with the help of a dedicated teacher.

These criticisms come from a man who knows a little something about computers. An avowed ex-hippie, Stoll was an astronomer and systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the 1980s when he noticed that he couldn't account for 75 cents worth of computer time. He investigated and discovered a hacker breaking into the system – a spy, in fact, who wandered all over the network of U.S. military computers in search of sensitive data. Stoll's inspired sleuthing led to the intruder's capture in Europe, and Stoll's account of this drama was the basis for his best-selling first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, as well as an episode of the PBS program Nova. His next book was the provocative Silicon Snake Oil.

His latest, High-Tech Heretic, is a further critique of the idea that computers, networked or otherwise, represent a panacea in the complex business of living human lives. Stoll's book is written in what I call Net prose, a chipper, informal style that (perhaps unwittingly) owes much to modern advertising copy. It's inoffensive, somewhat flavorless and poses no problems to the vocabulary-challenged.

Fortunately, Stoll is a very smart guy who brings his skeptical intelligence to bear on some critical questions. This is a man who cares passionately about learning and its transmission, and he can't figure out how diverting students with computer exercises fosters understanding. He cites horrifying instances of schools shortchanging true pedagogy for machinery they're not properly equipped to use, and demolishes the arguments one by one for computers in schools.

To the idea that students will graduate into a world of ubiquitous computing, he says, "Automobiles are everywhere, too. They play a damned important part in our society and it's hard to get a job if you can't drive. ... But we don't teach automobile literacy."

To the notion that networked computers can keep curricula current, he scoffs, "The past two decades of research haven't greatly changed basic high-school math, physics and chemistry."

To the suggestion that computers make learning fun, he answers that real learning is unavoidably hard, and that computers merely substitute games. His arguments, like those of Yale computer scientist David Gelernter before him, are convincing. "Computer literacy" is an empty cliche that, for most people, means knowing how to type, backspace and click a mouse. In fact, Stoll doesn't think schools need much in the way of technology, aside from indoor plumbing and good light. He sees "distance learning" as a joke, and loathes the tendency of today's students to rely on calculators. He heaps scorn, too, on the idea that computers can somehow replace books in libraries.

In the vein of Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll is convinced the Internet isolates us (in part by enfolding us in useless data while real life is going on outside), rather than bringing us together. He says the Net is filled with junk, which of course it is, but doesn't credit its extraordinary usefulness as an everyday source of information, goods and services.

High-Tech Heretic is one of those books that makes me wonder anew why the Internet hasn't revived the monograph. Old-fashioned, single-subject tracts of this kind are impossible to sell as books, because they aren't long enough to justify a book's price, but they're too long for magazines.

On the Internet, however, people could buy them electronically, print them out and read them on paper. That way an author like Stoll wouldn't be tempted to pad a perfectly reasonable work on a worthwhile topic with lesser pieces that really aren't apropos.

At least he really make an aquarium from an old Mac. And showing his true colors (not Big Blue), he turns an old PC into a kitty litterbox.

- Daniel Akst writes frequently about money and investing.

Kirkus Reviews
A brilliant skeptic assails high-tech boosterism, attacking the trendy assumption that computers will profoundly improve our schools, libraries, and whole society. Stoll (Silicon Snake Oil, 1995) has spent the last two decades participating in, and commenting on, the Information Age. Unlike most high-tech insiders, Stoll isn't sure that society's problems will disappear if people spend more time in front of their computers, surfing the Web, or chatting online. Stoll bemoans a major educational trend of the last decade: the rapid computerization of the classroom. He's a passionate believer in a quite old-fashioned medium of data transmission: the book. He asserts that advocates of the computerized classroom have confused data with wisdom, wisdom being the ability to filter data and place it into a larger perspective. This is exactly what the internet cannot do, says Stoll. In the computerized classroom, "solving a problem means clicking on the right icon," allowing zero time to reflect. Thus, students focus on the shallowness of data, supplemented by multimedia graphics, while failing to consider the real-world contexts in which problems arise. Computers and calculators also create unhealthy dependencies that lead to student laziness and emotional detachment. In addition, computer learning erodes social skills. Wonderful as they may be, virtual communities can't replace human interaction: The internet "gives us the illusion of making friends with faraway strangers while taking our attention away from our friends, family, and neighbors." As schools and libraries blithely race down the information superhighway, our most public institutions become dehumanized, so that researchlibrarians and teachers are increasingly "technology facilitators." Despite the conventional wisdom, Stoll isn't so sure there's a pot of gold at the end of the high-tech rainbow. A much-needed antidote to all the current buzz about our glorious "wired" future. If you can manage to get away from your computer screen long enough, read this valuable book.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385489751
Publisher:
Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
10/19/1999
Pages:
221
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.51(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Literate Luddite?

Am I the only one scratching my head over the relentless invocation of the cliche "computer literacy"? Is a supermarket checkout clerk computer literate because he operates a laser scanner, a digital scale, and a networked point-of-sale computer? Is my sister computer literate because she uses a word processor? Are the mirthless robots at the corner arcade computer literate because they reflexively react to Nintendo droids?

Our nation now spends about three billion dollars a year to wire our classrooms, with an aim of making our country's students computer literate. But how much computing does a high school student need to know?

I'd say a high school graduate, intent on going to college, should be able to use a word processor, manipulate a spreadsheet, know what a database does, be able to use e-mail, and know how to browse the World Wide Web.

But not every high school graduate needs to be able to program spreadsheets or lay out databases. It's a waste of time to teach competency on specific programs . . . software taught in high school probably won't be used elsewhere, or will soon be outdated. Instead, we should teach what a database does and where it's useful, so that if that student winds up running a warehouse or keeping an address book, she'll know to turn to a database program.

So, how long did it take you to learn a word processor? A day? Maybe three? Aside from the mechanical typing lessons, this just isn't challenging stuff.

To cover what I've outlined is hardly difficult--perhaps a few weeks on a computer. Unworthy of much time or academic attention. Learning how to use a computer--as opposed to programming acomputer--is essentially a mechanical task, one that doesn't require or encourage creativity.

Of course, using a computer requires learning to type. Oops, I mean acquiring keyboarding proficiency. Again, hardly rocket science.

Computer literacy doesn't demand the same level of instruction as English, American history, or physics. It doesn't require the same amount of effort, either. Spending semesters teaching computing simply subtracts time from other subjects.

Probably because computers are so easy for students to learn, educators love to teach computer techniques. But what are their students prepared for? A lifetime of poking at a keyboard for eight hours a day. It's one more way to dumb down the school, giving the appearance of teaching futuristic subjects while dodging truly challenging topics.

Today, practically all office workers know word processing. Most learned it late in life, well past age eighteen. But some subjects, while easy for a child to learn, are impossible for adults . . . languages, for instance. The earlier you start, the easier to become fluent. Same with playing a musical instrument. Or drawing. Or public speaking. Gymnastics. Plenty of people wish they'd learned a musical instrument or a foreign language as a child. But I've never heard anyone complain that they were deprived because they weren't exposed enough to computers or television as a kid.

Which gives you more advantages in business: having a long history of computer experiences, going back to programming Logo? Or fluency in Japanese, German, French, and Chinese? Which is more likely to lead to a rich, happy life: a childhood of Nintendo and Playstations, or one of hikes and bikes?

When I point out the dubious value of computers in schools, I hear the point "Look, computers are everywhere, so we have to bring them into the classroom."

Well, automobiles are everywhere too. They play a damned important part in our society and it's hard to get a job if you can't drive. Cars account for more of our economy than do computers: General Motors' revenues are many times those of Microsoft.

But we don't teach automobile literacy. Nor do we make driver's education a central part of the curriculum--indeed, many schools are now dropping driver's ed, recognizing that teenagers can learn to drive without intensive schooling.

Sure, cars and computers play a prominent role in our lives. Hey--soft-drink ads dominate our skylines and our globe's awash in a syrupy, brown sugar solution, yet we don't push Coca-Cola into elementary schools. At least, we didn't until educators invited Channel-1 and the advertising-laden Internet into classrooms.

But since computers seem ubiquitous, don't we have to bring them to school? Well, no. Television, which is certainly omnipresent, has been relegated to a fairly minor role in education, and politicians aren't funding new initiatives to buy more classroom TV sets.

Want a nation of dolts? Just center the curriculum on technology--teach with videos, computers, and multimedia systems. Aim for highest possible scores on standardized tests. Push aside such less vocationally applicable subjects as music, art, and history. Dolts are what we'll get.

Mathematician Neal Koblitz recognizes the anti-intellectual appeal of computers: "They're used in the classroom in a way that fosters a golly-gee-whiz attitude that sees science as a magical black box, rather than as an area of critical thinking. Instead of asking whether or not technology can support the curriculum, educators try to find ways to squeeze the curriculum into a mold so that computers and calculators can be used."

Computers encourage students to turn in visually exciting hypermedia projects, often at the expense of written compositions and hand-drawn projects. Pasting a fancy graphic into a science report doesn't mean an eighth grader has learned anything. Nor does a downloaded report from the Internet suggest that a student has any understanding of the material.

Yet the emphasis on professional reports sends students the message that appearance and fonts mean more than content. Kids stuck with pencils feel somehow inferior and out of place next to those with computer-generated compositions. The computer-enabled students spend more time preening their reports, rather than understanding the subject matter.

At a high school science fair, I saw a multicolor map of the Earth, showing global temperature distributions. I asked the report's author why the Amazon rain forest seemed so cold--the map showed the jungle to be thirty-eight degrees. "I don't know," he shrugged. "I found the map from the Internet." The guy never considered that the data might be in Celsius, rather than Fahrenheit.

Meet the Author

Clifford Stoll, an MSNBC commentator, lecturer, and a Berkeley astronomer, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

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High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ashleyboyles21 More than 1 year ago
High Tec Heretics by Stoll wasn’t the normal text that I would choose to read however I did find some of the information that he wrote to be interesting. However, Stoll does send mixed messages about the use of computers .I agree with him whenever he states that computers have become the largest form of all information and interaction but they shouldn’t be. Although we have use of computers everywhere that we go, we still need to be involved in other ways than through the PC. As a future teacher I would have to say that I will be integrating technology into my classroom but they will not be the only form of communication that I have for my students. Having social interactions is more important than communicating through technology. In this book Stoll points out that computers only have one way of answering questions such as “what is seven?” while a teacher in a classroom can teach students hundreds of ways to work hands-on to figure out this simple question. Just as I have learned in my Technology classroom this year, it is easy to become aggravated with computers because computers cannot sense that you are frustrated you are simply left to fend for yourself. If you have a teacher rather, to help you, they understand your thoughts on the materials that are being taught and can redirect you without “redirecting you” to another website. Stoll also mentions in his text that the internet doesn’t always provide accurate information and he is 100% correct. There are so many people that just upload content that they believe is to be true and is in fact incorrect because they have used an unreliable source. If students were to look up the information for themselves from an encyclopedia, they would be more likely to come up with accurate information about whatever they are researching. Stoll also makes witty remarks about the use of computers by stating that they are merely just for entertainment purposes rather than educational. I feel that this was a good book for my class to read as education majors because it gives us something to think about for our future students and how we are going to integrate technology into out lessons!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one book that is daring enough to say what people caught up in this computer age need to hear. As the top math student at my high school, I constantly see a dependence on calculators which he wittingly addresses. This book can be in your face, but is none the less valid and quite refreshing. Only people who have not read the book could possibly call it anything but right on point!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was watching an NBC interview with the Author of this Horrible excuse for a publication, Clifford Stoll, and was disgusted to hear the remarks coming from this creaton. In his exact words, 'Computer's don't require any creativity to run, and especially does not supply the user with any sort of imagination...', right after hearing this, i quickly logged onto the Internet and proceeded to find a review for his book. I have not yet read his book, but will be buying it within the next week for a closer look into Clifford's dimented little head on his opinion of the 'Computer Age' that we live in.