By PAMELA MENDELS
Technology Critic Takes On Computers in Schools
bout 95 percent of American public schools today have computers and Internet connections. The spread of computers is a healthy development in the eyes of people from local school board officials to Vice President Al Gore, who has been saying for years that computers are a boon to education.
But a growing if still small group of critics disagrees. They say the educational merits of classroom computers are dubious, while the cost of the technology is too high.
Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, computer expert and technology gadfly, warns against classroom computing in his new book, "High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian"
Now Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, computer expert and gadfly who punctured hyperbolic claims about the societal benefits of technology in his last book, "Silicon Snake Oil" (Doubleday, 1995), has added his voice to the debate. Not surprisingly, he has come down on the side of those encouraging education policy makers to rethink the full-speed-ahead course on which they have embarked.
"Here's a policy being put into place without any hearings or public debate," Stoll said in a telephone interview from his home near San Francisco. "No one is asking, 'What problem does this solve? What problem does this cause?'"
In his new book, "High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian" (Doubleday), Stoll offers some answers of his own.
Stoll rejects the idea that students need to use computers intensively and at an early age to become computer literate. In fact, he says, the computer skills needed by adults in the modern world are relatively few and easily learned. A high school graduate should be able to use a word-processing program, be familiar with spreadsheets and data bases, and be comfortable sending e-mail and browsing the Web. Stoll says these are skills that are easily mastered in a few weeks and hardly require a battery of computers in every classroom from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In fact, Stoll says that giving a prominent place to technology in the classroom could end up doing a lot of real harm to students. For one thing, he says, time on the computer inevitably means time taken away from real interaction with teachers and other students. It also means reduced time for things that children do master more easily than grown-ups, like foreign languages and musical instruments.
Stoll also argues that money spent on computers means money not spent on something else. In one passage in his book, Stoll writes that when he visited computer labs at schools, he got into the habit of asking what the rooms were used for before the computers moved in. He quotes some of the responses:
"We converted the library into the computer lab. With the multimedia encyclopedias, we no longer need as many books."
"Oh, we used to teach art in this room. But we don't anymore."
"This technology lab used to be our carpentry shop."
"A music studio..."
Stoll reserves some of his sharpest barbs for the infatuation with technology that he says is undermining science and math education. Computer simulations of growing plants are no substitute for observation of the real thing in biology classes, and dragging the icon of a beaker across the screen in a virtual titration is a paltry imitation of chemistry, he writes.
"Students have seen pictures of planets, galaxies and clusters on their computer screens," Stoll said in the interview. "The Hubble space telescope images abound online. But take a student outside in the evening and say, 'O.K., where's the North Star? Can you point to Saturn?' and students are suddenly incompetent."
Stoll argues that students raised on video games and television need less exposure to image-filled screens, not more, if they are to be engaged in the tough task of meaningful learning. "The computer promotes the expectation that anything can be made more fun," he said. "But many things important in life are, unfortunately, difficult to learn and require a great deal of mental effort. 'Innovative technology' will make it appear to be fun. But try to make school into a fun, entertaining experience and you will gut the very essence of learning."
Stoll's book and outlook are, predictably, drawing criticism from advocates of educational technology. In a recent commentary in Education Week, Keith R. Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit Washington group that promotes the use of technology in schools, wrote that Stoll unfairly focuses on silly uses of classroom technology rather than grappling with what Krueger views as the key question: how to harness technology for educational purposes.
In a telephone interview, Krueger argued that it is precisely because children are raised in a "media-rich environment" that educators need to figure out how to use what he described as a "tremendously powerful tool" for learning.
"Stoll is back in the old debate about whether we should have computers in school or not," Krueger said. "That's the wrong question. The question is, how do we use computers and technology to improve schools and learning?"
Krueger also said that Web sites and educational software do not necessarily lack intellectual merit because students find them entertaining. Indeed, he argues, young people look forward to the increasing levels of difficulty in video games. "I agree that learning is hard and rigorous," he said. "But that's not necessarily mutually exclusive with 'fun.'"
Still, Stoll's views are resonating with those skeptical of the claims made for technology in the classroom. Joan Almon, a founder of the Alliance for Childhood, a group pressing for better child health and welfare through, among other things, less exposure to media glitz, applauds Stoll's entry into the debate.
"I think there is a healthy waking up on the part of a lot of people who are saying, 'The emperor has no clothes,'" she said. "With technology in education, there is a little bit of merit surrounded by a lot of hype."
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