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High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian

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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 " 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.


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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 " 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.

30 review for High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I just finished reading High Tech Heretic by Clifford Stoll. Stoll, an apparently famous technology writer who's written two novels that I've never heard of before, is knowledgeable about the computer industry. In his book he attempts to argue against the increasing use of computers in the classroom. I'll be the first to admit that he has several very strong points that are not to be ignored. He discusses the lack of rigor and human interaction in the classroom. He's correct in his analysis that I just finished reading High Tech Heretic by Clifford Stoll. Stoll, an apparently famous technology writer who's written two novels that I've never heard of before, is knowledgeable about the computer industry. In his book he attempts to argue against the increasing use of computers in the classroom. I'll be the first to admit that he has several very strong points that are not to be ignored. He discusses the lack of rigor and human interaction in the classroom. He's correct in his analysis that computer equipment will fall into obsolescence a lot faster than good textbooks will and I feel that his dismay at the misguided direction of inordinate amounts of funds into computer equipment over books is correctly placed. The proliferation of computers and the internet into schools and classrooms is no excuse for the depletion of libraries and the failure of students to master basic reading and mental math skills. In his zeal to combat what he sees as a plague of computers, he denys the benefits that computers can have and the applications they can find in the classroom. This is a novel in serious need of an experienced editor. It reads like the first draft rant of a college student on the rampage; it would make a great 50 page essay, but his cynicism leads him on a 200 page ramble. The first half of the book is what is billed as the subject of the book. The second half of the book is a more general discussion on the state of technology today that's only indirectly related to his thesis. Beyond that loose classification, the text is pretty unorganized. He bounces between repeating over and over again his main points (and could probably have used a good thesaurus.) Frequently referencing studies, discussions, and software, he never cites a single thing, only providing casual credit. Interspersed with his text are stories and anecdotes that I had trouble connecting to the general point of the book. They just didn't fit. His footnotes are usually semi-related factiods or comments. One's a recipe for banana bread. Summarily, he doesn't appear to know much about teaching as an art or skill. He has set in his mind an idea of what a "great teacher" is that just can't include computers. Ever. Although he discusses the merits of the internet he considers them far inferior to his idealized "actual thing." Every time he mentions money, he only compares the price of computers and their support to textbooks. He advocates many field trips and excellent teachers, not once mentioning the fact that field trips cost money on several fronts, or that excellent teachers usually want passable, livable (and would be lucky to find excellent) salaries. In terms of field trips: buses have to be rented, drivers paid, teachers paid, volunteers recruited and the entire thing has to be planned with somebody's time. After all that, straining over the bar at the zoo, the students happen to catch the snakes when they're sleeping and rain cuts everything short. His field trip has just been ruined and in his classroom, the teacher can't turn to the computer to show the students a video of a snake eating or pictures of the birds that were hiding from the rain. It's true that the computers and the internet are a sometimes unreliable resource, but they can be used with extreme effectiveness in moderation. It does take a little effort, research, to know what you're doing and how to find what you're looking for. They can provide alternate means of experiencing the material to students who don't take the "teacher at the chalkboard" approach. I feel that in his reaction, he's missing the opportunities that having a few computers around can actually be a good thing. It's a shame that this book wasn't better written; an excellent treatment of the subject matter would be a compelling must-read for every teacher and administrator. It's true that all around us we see technology touted as the harbinger of a future utopia and that it's sometimes hard to resist the idea that it could be the end-all solution to our problems. The fact of the matter is that they just haven't reached the "total information technology" level (to steal a quote from Robin Willams,) that we see them offering. Take them with the understanding that not every website is gospel and you can go far.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David

    The details in Stoll's book are already becoming obsolete, but that doesn't make his points any less true. And that is really the point of the book: computers are a tool, not a panacea, and we do ourselves a disservice to think otherwise. Learning well is still hard work. It's not enough to know how to use a calculator without understanding numbers well enough to check the answers the calculator gives. Pre-school students need play, not keyboard practice. Books are more important to libraries th The details in Stoll's book are already becoming obsolete, but that doesn't make his points any less true. And that is really the point of the book: computers are a tool, not a panacea, and we do ourselves a disservice to think otherwise. Learning well is still hard work. It's not enough to know how to use a calculator without understanding numbers well enough to check the answers the calculator gives. Pre-school students need play, not keyboard practice. Books are more important to libraries than computers are. Students in chemistry and physics labs should learn about the joy of tinkering, the difficulties of data collection, and the aesthetic of a well-designed experiment -- and computer simulations don't teach those things.

  3. 4 out of 5

    I DRM Free

    Again, I read this years ago when it was first released. In this book, If I remember right I pretty much agreed with his conclusions about electronics in the classroom at the time. However, I think time has allowed electronics to grow to where they can be used effectively in a classroom. Again this is another book I would like to re-read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    ammunition for those teachers out there who, like myself, are in the Resistance, i.e. fighting against tech-happy administrators who continuously drone on about 'technology in the classroom' ammunition for those teachers out there who, like myself, are in the Resistance, i.e. fighting against tech-happy administrators who continuously drone on about 'technology in the classroom'

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gumby

    Entertainingly short-sighted and often flat-out wrong tech predictions from 1999, penned by a UB alum.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Juan Denzer

    Although this book is 20 years old and technology has come a long way. Much of what the author argues is still relevant.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mark Valentine

    Maybe this is not the right forum to discuss a book that debunks the internet, but I presume that you have enough sense to read between the lines here as with Stoll's book. More than his writing style, I enjoyed his perspicacious understanding of how computers and everything related to high tech has radically changed our society and individual lives. For some odd reason, we never challenge new gadgetry, we just assimilate it. But for everything we gain, we lose something. I particularly enjoyed t Maybe this is not the right forum to discuss a book that debunks the internet, but I presume that you have enough sense to read between the lines here as with Stoll's book. More than his writing style, I enjoyed his perspicacious understanding of how computers and everything related to high tech has radically changed our society and individual lives. For some odd reason, we never challenge new gadgetry, we just assimilate it. But for everything we gain, we lose something. I particularly enjoyed the first half of his book, in which he challenges using computers in our public schools. It is a high cost, low benefit formula. (Read Jane Healy's books, Failure To Connect and Endangered Minds, if you want to follow-up on this topic.) In the second half of his book, he rattles technology in general, and although his tone sounds at times like the whiny Andy Rooney, his message needs to be heard, particularly his chapter on Library management. If the title appeals to you, you will like the book; he's a radical from the inside. This book should be a companion to Bill McKibbon's The Age of Misinformation and Jerry Mander's In The Absence Of The Sacred. This is a quick, scatalogical read, friends, and worth it.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chris Aylott

    The most entertaining thing about this book is how quaint it sounds. CD-ROMs! Dial-up modems! Network cables! Everybody's playing Myst! (Which was kind of out of date even when the book was published in 1999.) It's fun to think back 13 years and realize just how much technology has changed. Other than that, this isn't much more than a collection of repetitive and ill-founded rants. Stoll's basic point is correct: computers shouldn't be the focal point of education or any other sphere of life. But The most entertaining thing about this book is how quaint it sounds. CD-ROMs! Dial-up modems! Network cables! Everybody's playing Myst! (Which was kind of out of date even when the book was published in 1999.) It's fun to think back 13 years and realize just how much technology has changed. Other than that, this isn't much more than a collection of repetitive and ill-founded rants. Stoll's basic point is correct: computers shouldn't be the focal point of education or any other sphere of life. But he never discusses the corollary that computers are a tool, and like any tool their value depends on how you use them. Given that he had to pad the book out with 90 pages of disconnected Andy Rooney-isms about different aspects of computers, one would think he would have brought this idea up. This is worth reading as a historical artifact of the pre-Google, pre-Youtube, pre-Facebook world. But it's not a particularly thoughtful or insightful book, now or then.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Darin

    Stoll's book is a mixed bag; unfortunately, most of it is bad. While many of his points about the affect of computers in the classroom are valid and confirmed by my time in education, the good points are mired in a nearly unreadable stream-of-consciousness writing style that reeks more of "bitter old coot" rather than "scientist and educator". Without the harsh tone, there's some good stuff in here. Most of that stuff, however, is pretty obvious and not worth wading through this book to find. Stoll's book is a mixed bag; unfortunately, most of it is bad. While many of his points about the affect of computers in the classroom are valid and confirmed by my time in education, the good points are mired in a nearly unreadable stream-of-consciousness writing style that reeks more of "bitter old coot" rather than "scientist and educator". Without the harsh tone, there's some good stuff in here. Most of that stuff, however, is pretty obvious and not worth wading through this book to find.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Klippenstein

    Points which were probably valid for the time period. Unfortunately, the apparent success of the iPad at improving learning, and the spectacular success of the Khan Academy, will make a lot of people conclude he was really, really wrong. (Whereas, as per above, he was probably correct at the time.)

  11. 4 out of 5

    Criz

    This is a well thought out collection of points for anybody thinking that kids and computers are a good fit. He systematically disassembles each argument for putting computers in the classroom and provides a number of solutions to prevent the US from becoming a tech/biz consultant career machine. The instructions for creating an aquarium out of an old mac is a fun bonus.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rob O'Daniel

    Some of the examples are dated, which I'm certain will be an immediate put-off for superficial readers, but this is an insightful look into the dangers of the "technology is good, so let's shovel it at kids" mindset that's overtaking public schools. Some of the examples are dated, which I'm certain will be an immediate put-off for superficial readers, but this is an insightful look into the dangers of the "technology is good, so let's shovel it at kids" mindset that's overtaking public schools.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Christopher DeMarcus

    A light and ranty version of many arguments found in Postman's Technopoly. While older readers will be more likely to pick it up, younger readers would benefit the most. The rants about sitting through boring Powerpoint presentations and the validity of old fashioned books were some of the best. A light and ranty version of many arguments found in Postman's Technopoly. While older readers will be more likely to pick it up, younger readers would benefit the most. The rants about sitting through boring Powerpoint presentations and the validity of old fashioned books were some of the best.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ed Walker

    A good read if you want something to offset the starry-eyed hype that computers are the key to happiness and success.

  15. 5 out of 5

    pbb

    cliff stoll's rant against computers in education. awesome. cliff stoll's rant against computers in education. awesome.

  16. 4 out of 5

    dgw

    I've published my thoughts and reflections elsewhere. I've published my thoughts and reflections elsewhere.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Arian Reyes

  18. 5 out of 5

    Drew

  19. 4 out of 5

    Samuel Muggington

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kate

  22. 4 out of 5

    John Fultz

  23. 4 out of 5

    Olof Lindholm

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kit

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sean Metzler

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

  27. 4 out of 5

    David Brown

  28. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez

  30. 5 out of 5

    Miko

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