Cliff Stoll on Computers and Education

The New York Times May 19, 1996

Invest in Humanware By CLIFFORD STOLL



Remember filmstrips?

I used to look forward to Wednesday afternoons when our fifth-grade teacher would dim the lights, pull down the screen and advance the projector to an electronic beep. All the pupils loved filmstrips. For the next hour, we didn't have to think. Teachers liked them, too. With arms folded in the back of the class, they didn't have to teach.

The principal approved. Filmstrips were proof that Public School 61 in Buffalo was at the cutting edge of educational technology. Parents demanded filmstrips, the modern, multimedia way to bring the latest information into the classroom. It was a win-win approach that bypassed textbooks and old-style classrooms. But no learning took place.

You've likely seen as many filmstrips as I have. O.K., name three that had a lasting effect on your life. Now name three teachers who did. Yesterday's filmstrip has morphed into today's school computer. Promoted as a solution to the crisis in the classroom, computers have been welcomed uncritically across the educational spectrum. So uncritically that, astonishingly, school libraries, art studios, and music rooms are being replaced by computer labs.

President Clinton promotes the wiring of the nation's high schools. Elementary schools seek grants for hardware and software. Colleges invest in video teaching systems. Yet the value of these expensive gizmos to the classroom is unproved and rests on dubious assumptions.

What's most important in a classroom? A good teacher interacting with motivated students. Anything that separates them -- filmstrips, instructional videos, multimedia displays, E-mail, TV sets, interactive computers -- is of questionable education value. Yes, kids love these high-tech devices and play happily with them for hours. But just because children do something willingly doesn't mean that it engages their minds. Indeed, most software for children turns lessons into games. The popular arithmetic program Math Blaster simulates an arcade shoot-'em-down, complete with enemy flying saucers. Such instant gratification keeps the kids clicking icons while discouraging any sense of studiousness or sustained mental effort.

Plop a kid down before such a program, and the message is, "You have to learn the math tables, so play with this computer." Teach the same lesson with flash cards, and a different message comes through: "You're important to me, and this subject is so useful that I'll spend an hour teaching you arithmetic. "Computers promise short cuts to higher grades and painless learning. Today's edutainment software comes shrink-wrapped in the magic mantra: "makes learning fun." Equating learning with fun says that if you don't enjoy yourself, you're not learning.

I disagree. Most learning isn't fun. Learning takes work. Discipline. Responsibility -- you have to do your homework. Commitment, from both teacher and student. There's no short cut to a quality education. And the payoff isn't an adrenaline rush but a deep satisfaction arriving weeks, months or years later. Anyway, what good are these glitzy gadgets to a child who can't pay attention in class, won't read more than a paragraph and is unable to write analytically?

Still, isn't it great that the Internet brings the latest events into classrooms? Maybe. Perhaps some teachers lack information, but most have plenty, thank you. Rather, there is too little class time to cover what's available. A shortage of information simply isn't a problem. There's a wide gulf between data and information. The former lacks organization, content, context, timeliness and accuracy.

The Internet delivers plenty of data and precious little information. Lacking critical thinking, kids are on-screen innocents who confuse form with content, sense with sensibility, ponderous words with weighty thoughts. Sure, students can search the Web, gathering information for assignments.The result? Instead of synthesizing a report from library sources, they often take the short cut, copying what's on line. It's no surprise when a ninth grader turns in a history paper duplicated from a CD-ROM encyclopedia or a college sophomore turns in an English composition taken straight from the Internet. The copy-and-paste mentality of computing works against creativity. Computing encourages the tyranny of the right answer. But the price of rigid thinking is whimsy lost, inventiveness snubbed, curiosity thwarted. Learning doesn't quantify well and it shouldn't be a competitive sport. Students who can explain their reasons for picking wrong answers contribute more to classroom dialogue than those who seldom make errors. To my way of thinking, mistakes are more interesting than correct answers. And problems more important than solutions

Promoters of the Internet tell us that the World Wide Web brings students closer together through instant communications. But the drab reality of spending hours at a keyboard is one of isolation. While reaching out to faraway strangers, we're distanced from classmates, teachers and family. Somehow, I feel it's more important to pen a thank-you note to a friend than to upload e-mail to someone across the ocean. One of the most common -- and illogical -- arguments for computers in the classroom is that they'll soon be everywhere, so shouldn't they be in schools? One might as well say that since cars play such a crucial role in our society, shouldn't we make driver's ed central to the curriculum? Anyway, computer skills aren't tough to learn. Millions have taught themselves at home. In school, it's better to learn how Shakespeare processed words than how Microsoft does. The Gosh-Wow attitude of multimedia turns science and math into a spectator sport, substituting pictures of test tubes for the real thing. Which teaches more: watching a video about the heat of crystallization or dissolving potassium nitrate in water and touching the side of the beaker?

What exactly is being taught using computers? On the surface, pupils learn to read, type and use programs. I'll bet that they're really learning something else. How to stare at a monitor for hours on end. To accept what a machine says without arguing. That the world is a passive, preprogrammed place, where you need only click the mouse to get the right answer. That relationships -- developed over E-mail -- are transitory and shallow. That discipline isn't necessary when you can zap frustrations with a keystroke. That legible handwriting, grammar, analytic thought and human dealings don't matter.

Looking for simple ways to help in the classroom? Eliminate interruptions from school intercoms. Make classes smaller. Respect teachers as essential professionals with tough jobs. Protest multiple-choice exams, which discourage writing and analytic thinking. If we must push technology into the classroom, let's give teachers their own photocopiers so they can avoid the long wait in the school office. For decades, we've welcomed each new technology -- stereopticons, lantern slides, motion pictures, filmstrips and videotapes -- as a way to improve teaching. Each has promised better students and easier learning. None has succeeded. Except that it is even more expensive, I suspect that classroom computing isn't much different.


Clifford Stoll, an astrophysicist, is author of ``Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.''