SEYS 753 Book Review - High tech heretic

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Stoll, C. (1999). High tech heretic: why computers don't belong in the classroom and other reflections by a computer contrarian Doubleday.

Stoll’s goal in writing the book seems to be to shed light on the folly of blindly putting computers and computer education into our schools. With numerous clear examples, he illustrates how the implementation of a technology into the school environment can actually detract from the quality of education being provided.

The book is divided into two sections; “Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom” and “The Computer Contrarian”. In arguing his ideas, Stoll makes concrete points backed by anecdotal evidence. He presents a good case for reevaluating the rush to put computers into the classroom without clear goals and realistic, long term cost estimates. His command of prose is strong, making the book easily readable and his points hit home in describing the problem and offering solutions.

Stoll’s weakness is his love of the ‘zing’ story, and he gets caught up in the rhetoric, stretches some points out to lengthen a chapter at times. His vitriol at the well-intentioned movement to bring technology into the classroom gets mean-spirited at times, as if he is venting his frustrations en masse. His hyperbole reaches at times, likening our embracing of the internet to Faustian deal with Mephistopheles, yet his motives are clear throughout.

Stoll is writer, teacher and scientist, but when it comes to computers, he is a skeptical technologies. So concerned with protecting the credibility of the technology, he risks being labeled a Luddite with his fierce criticisms of sloppy technological realities.

Stoll‘s venom is particularly toxic when he is regaling stories of technology grants as both blind to the usefulness and susceptible to abuse. He quite accurately paints a portrait of the difficulty of using a computer and particularly the inevitable and unavoidable distractions of the technology itself: it is not foolproof, it is prone to problems, and when you have a class of thirty or more students, it is unusual that there is not a problem with hardware, software of connectivity.

Computers replacing textbooks is another area where he quite correctly finds fallacies. Even a top of the line laptop will not last as long as a well written textbook, and costs many times more in maintenance and upkeep over its useful life.

The costs of bringing computers into classrooms is also something that has been at a greater costs than initially projected. Grants notwithstanding, maintaining and servicing computers is wonderful for creating technology jobs in the schools, but it is inevitably at the cost of classroom teachers, equipment and content. In an age where even most New York City high schools have a computer in most classrooms, many schools do not have music, art or sports programs, and the internet is a poor teacher of these things to more than an interested few.

Another sore point for Stoll is the sales pitch that computers make everything more interesting. Reading is boring, reading is hard work. Well… yes, it can be, but that’s how we learn. The antithesis of having to read something that here and now seems boring is the horror of having to sit through endless cheap, cheesy & cutesy animations that were barely tolerable the first time they were viewed, and get increasingly annoying as they are repeated over and over. This is not learning, this is entertaining, and it can take away from the learning.

In foreseeing the uses of laptops in classrooms, for instance, he inadvertently predicts the pestilence of the contemporary cell phone, in itself an evil distraction of games, idle chatter and ultimately more of a distraction than helpful tool.

Bringing technology into the classrooms is a wonderful thing, but Stoll is dead on in his assessment of it is a means and not an end. The question must inevitably have been asked again and again, particularly by the unwitting teachers who suddenly find themselves the recipients of classroom computers: great, now what do I do with it?”, and suddenly this marvelous tool for supplementing learning is sitting idle or tucked away in a closet, as so many smartboards end up.

Although I am an advocate of active learning, I have found the computer to be more distraction than help in the classroom.

In addressing how poorly storytelling translated to hypertext back in 1999, Stoll downplays the transition of texts from book to on-line, yet I do not think he anticipated the entrepreneurial innovations such as the rapidly maturing Wikipedia and Amazon’s Kindle reader and the possibities that can open up, as I recently discovered the entire text, with original illustrations, of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland freely available with a few clicks on my laptop. Projects such as google books seem poised to rescue and preserve the written record of mankind for millennia to come. For the same reasons that we are cautioned to be wary of sharing personal information on the internet, the Works of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Stephen King will be potentially be available in perpetuity.

He called it. The same issues we have seen in the decline of newspaper and responsible broadcast journalism is embodied in his identification of “fragmented learning”, or the necessary of keeping web-provided information relatively short at the cost of detail, complexity and completelness.

That’s not to say that the computer is without value in the classroom. As a supplemental resource, it certainly has its usefulness. Not everyone learns the same way, and for those that can benefit fromeducational software, particularly the CTT students, it can be a wonderful tool. But not the only tool, and that is more Stoll’s point.

Tackling the delicate question of the appropriate age for beginning on computers, he touches on the problems of computers inhibiting social skills. Perhaps the bookworm who previously hid behind the pages of a good novel now peeks over the top of his or her laptop screen from a secluded corner of starbucks…

Or the opposite, with the advent of exposoing our youth to flashy, fast get it out in a few seconds storytelling, we are encouraging and embedding ADD into them.

Stoll’s attack on distance learning is brutal and merciless. The anonymity of the internet allows cheating on a scale never before realized, and perhaps only suspected in correspondence schools prior to the internet age. He is very teacher-centric, labeling most distance learning as memorization of facts rather than the synthesis of ideas on concepts. The benefit is convenience, the cost is massive expenditures for equipment and staff to enable the process.

One of Stoll’s complaints is that a computer technician can’t help you with course content and the teacher’s time is frequently spent on the technical issues at the expense of teaching time and content.

In the decade since Stoll’s book was published, the internet has been maturing. The internet has become the initial and, at times, primary source for research and references, and part of our job as teachers is to help shape the students ability to use it responsibly. While there are more and more information sources whose credibility is questionable at best, the innovations of applications like Google Scholar and the inevitable reigning in of Wikipedia authors show that the problem may be somewhat self-regulating. In essence, the net has seen its folly and has striven to improve its credibility.

He ends with an essay on the evils of the ease of using powerpoint to make a boring lecture or lesson unbearably unwatchable. I don’t think he would object to my inspired proposal to either license powerpoint presenters like automobile drivers or to require them to go through year-long teacher-training classes on how an effective powerpoint presentation is minimal and ultimately a waste of time if the presenter is not good at speaking to people.

Having taught physics to 9th graders the past two years, I can appreciate Stoll’s luddite approach to the use of computers and calculators in math class, particularly algebra. They rob the students of the opportunity to understand the concepts behind the numbers. Problem solving becomes button pressing. It’s not necessary to understand how to formulate abstract quantities. Rather you go straight from numbers to answers.” When the going gets tough, reach for the calculator. As the all-too-recent mortgage crisis has taught us, “our economic and scientific worlds demand more, not less, familiarity with math”. Easy access to advanced calculators and math software is detrimental in particular to algebra.

In all, Stoll consistently makes valid points applicable to and agreeable to most if not all teachers, but more so for administrators, superintendents, PTA’s, Parents and members of the congressional educational committees. A visit to a typical classroom finds a computer in the room, but teachers still teaching.

A 2008 study of the effectiveness of putting computers in classrooms suggested that, in terms of test results, the results were neutral at best.

“Overall, by the final year of the sample, there were approximately 68% more Internet-connected classrooms per teacher than there would have been without the subsidy. Using a variety of test score results, however, we do not find significant effects of the E-Rate program, at least so far, on student performance.”

Stoll’s self-anointed status as a pariah against technology may not be as singular a stance as he would have us believe. A study verified his observations of the educational value of pushing computers into the classroom: “whether the teacher used computers or Internet as pedagogical tools had no effect on the student’s test results for all social economic classes and grades.”

He’s not a Luddite. He does see a place for computers in the classroom, but it is not the panacea that so many computer education advocates and computer & software makers would have us believe, and perhaps going forward his message can concede the battle but take up the banner of the educator in the ongoing war for educational standards and assessments that have meaning in the world we are preparing our students for.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is very readable and enjoyable and I find myself charged up by it as an educator, and I will work to effectively enable classroom computer use, in particular to supplement CTT and related resources, as well as seeking out appropriate materials for higher-achieving students. One of my goals is to ensure individual attention to students regardless of the means of their learning, be it books, videos or interactive programs. I agree with Stoll’s implications that this can best be achieved by using the computer to supplement real research, not to replace it.

There can be no doubt that technology will continue to improve and find its way into the classroom. Given that these advances are not going away, I’m certain that Stoll would agree that our job as teachers is to find the best way to enable our students to take advantage of it without getting weighed down by its distractions.

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