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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 9|No 3|November|1999

Silicon Venom
A Review of
Clifford Stoll's new book

Australian teachers enjoying recent
Power Learning workshop in Canberra.




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

Clifford Stoll
Doubleday, NY, 1999


by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)

Silicon Snake Oil made an important contribution to the debate over the wiring of America and the rest of the world, but Clifford Stoll's new book, High Tech Heretic, is disappointing and thin on facts. Stoll ridicules and attacks many well meaning educators, portraying them as fools and idiots.

While there is certainly plenty to parody and criticize as schools rush to wire their classrooms, this book casts little light on the subject. Stoll ignores most conventions of scholarship and discourse. He offers more flame than light. His book is laced with harsh opinions rarely anchored in fact.

When he does mention reports, such as Harold Wenglinsky's ETS report, he misrepresents their findings, as he does on page 84 of his book.

"But his survey shows that over three fourths of all teachers have already taken specialized classes in how to use technology - that's pretty close to saturation."

He leaves out the following conclusions by Wenglinsky:

Yet there are large disparities in the amount of professional development teachers receive. Federal and state policymakers should target teacher training efforts at high-poverty urban and rural schools, which have much lower percentages of teachers receiving such training.
Page 34 of the ETS Report

He also ignores this conclusion:

The results from this study suggest that, as technology advocates have asserted, technology does matter to academic achievement, with the important caveat that whether it matters depends upon how it is used.
Page 33 of the ETS Report

Judge for yourself whether Stoll honestly represents the report by reading it at ETS
where an Adobe PDF file is available.

Or read summaries at Education Week . . .

Education Week makes it clear how badly Stoll twists the findings of the report to serve his own view point . . .

School systems appear to be waking up to the important role played by teacher training. Survey results from the 1996 NAEP show 81 percent of the nation's 4th graders had teachers who had received professional development with computers within the past five years, and 76 percent of 8th graders had math teachers who had received such training within the past five years.
But the survey says little about the quality or amount of that training; it could be a one-time workshop on a piece of software or ongoing, one-on-one assistance in the classroom. And given teachers' frequent complaints about the quality of professional development in general, many education experts believe that most technology training likely leaves plenty to be desired.
Wenglinsky, in fact, says he was struck by the fact that any amount of professional development translated into student achievement gains. "Which leads one to think that more elaborate training might post even greater gains," he adds.

Throughout his book, Stoll makes dozens of sweeping statements and characterizations as fact without providing substantial evidence. He does not even bother to list sources in a bibliography at the end of the book. There are no footnotes. While he offers an index, he calls it "An Index with an Attitude."

High Tech Heretic is a one-sided, unbalanced attack on the use of computers and other technologies in schools. Unlike the much better study published by Jane Healy, Failure to Connect, Stoll lists no examples of worthwhile uses or promising ventures.
Stoll has made no systematic survey of schools, provides no honest review of research and seems to have visited very few classrooms. The basis for his assault? Strong feelings unfettered by a serious search for the truth. This is a rambling collection of essays peppered with anecdotes and interviews carefully culled to paint an unrelentingly critical view of the movement. Stoll seems to know what is happening without engaging in scholarship or research.
Even though many of Stoll's reservations and concerns are worth noting, the personalized attacks and arrogance of the book make it unpleasant reading. One after another, Stoll parades a cast of fools through the pages of his book, taking pains to show each person at their worst. He finds their most embarrassing sentences, quotes them out of context and shows no remorse whatsoever.
I have met some of these same people and found them thoughtful and well intended. He turns them into cartoon figures, mere "cannon fodder" for his assault.
A quick glance at the cover provides the wary buyer with hints at what is inside. Stoll is now an MSNBC commentator. He has positioned himself as "contrarian." That is evidently someone who takes an opposing point of view.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Stoll evidently misses the irony that he has joined the cult of celebrity "chit chat" that substitutes opinion for knowledge. He is one more pundit on the circuit advancing preposterous viewpoints deliberately orchestrated to offend, to shock and to sell books. In a time where the signal to noise ratio has worsened, Stoll has taken to shouting and insulting in order to gain attention and to sell books. He has set his speakers at full volume, blasting his message so loudly that many will cover their ears and head for cover.
What he has not done is examine the potential of new information technologies to improve the reading, writing and thinking of our students. He has failed to entertain both the thesis and the counter thesis. He has failed to examine the issue thoughtfully, fairly and open-mindedly. His work is the antithesis of good research. His book is little more than tabloid commentary.
From Now On recommends a No Buy on this one.

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