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CliffordStoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. Anchor (1996) ISBN 0385419945 (alternate, search)

The second book by CliffordStoll, the author of the CuckoosEgg?, the story of West German hackers who offered their service to the Soviet Union in trade for money and drugs, and his part in capturing them. But that's that story.

This is a presentation of this computer user (he's an astronomer, and astronomy, like physics, is largely computer driven these days) and computer administrator's opinion of the growth of computers in society, specifically the growth of computers in K-12 education. It is overwhelmingly against, not only for what it crowds out (band rooms, art rooms) and what the computers pull from the budget, but for the way they are not easily placed into a curriculum (being just as much of an end-run around teaching as filmstrips and movies tend to be).


I'm torn on this, although I'm sure that Clifford would understand where I'm coming from. I am a military brat, and because I moved around so much, I never really had a chance to participate in band, drama, JROTC or any of the other aspects of high school education that Stoll glorifies, except for some Apple IIs that had some (barely) educational software on it. I know that since then, computers have gone from things that could guide you to the Moon but could barely drive a monochrome monitor to play a green-screen version of Frogger to boxes that can fairly accurately display a flight to the moon and back in 3D, with fighting spaceships swarming around you as you go. Cliff says we should have band and this and that and drama, and I never had a chance to participate in all that. He says that computing serves as a time-waster, like filmstrips. That, having been there, I can totally agree with.

But, there are totally acceptable uses of computers in an academic environment. I would not wish anyone read my handwriting, and I would understand a grade decrease any instructor would give my handwriting. Just as you can't grep dead trees (DeadTrees?), you can't spell-check dead trees. I took a creative writing course about 10 years ago, and the professor gave everyone ditto sheets for us to turn in our first assignment, and after I burned through the sheets and ruined them with typing errors, I gave up, Mac'd it up and made 20 photocopies for the class. I guess everyone else did, too, because there wasn't any more ditto sheets handed out. And since nobody in real publishing does paste-up by hand anymore, and the printing presses that print your daily newspapers are essentially massively large PC printers, teaching printing or journalism using non-computerized methods is almost not teaching them journalism.

The issue becomes the price, and with Microsoft you get the Microsoft Tax, which for the numbers of seats you need to get, for example, one computer for every 10 students and every 3 teachers, forgetting hardware and considering software alone, is bad. Schools are getting hit by the BSA, according to [Mathew Sulzi] of Red Hat, and of course with free software and open-source software, this doesn't have to be. While there are ineffective uses of computer technology, including a requirement for computers in every classroom, there are also legitimate and effective uses of computer technology in an educational environment, and free software should be part of the solution. --DaveJacoby

Every high school needs a computer lab so that the yearbook committee and the newspaper may function. While marginal activities, these clubs are fundamentals to certain careers and roles including advanced citizenship. Also, while students often have home systems of their own, some even with adequate software for the task, this is a disproportionately unfair advantage to disadvantaged students. Moreover, computers are now a necessary research tool. Consequently, I favour a decent presence in school libraries in all grades and in the tech labs of high schools. On the other hand, I don't think using computers to teach ecology is a good idea. I experienced this type of teaching and now I think I would have been better served to be hustled outside to see what's in the RealWorld. -- SunirShah

I have worked as a math/science tutor for a little over a year recently, so I have some opinions about technology in the classroom. The Internet is an evil distraction for almost all educational settings, particularly middle school. The TI-83 Plus graphing calculator is a godsend for explaining math to high school students, but teachers do need to be careful not to let it become a crutch. Spreadsheets are a gentle introduction to algebra for some students. In general, it's better to err on the side of not using technology. One technology I'd like to see in a classroom is a wiki. -- SteveHowell


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