Tough questions on click and learn

5th January 1996 at 00:00
SNAKE OIL. By Clifford Stoll Macmillan, Pounds 9.99 Jack Kenny picks his way through a pile of Internet introductions and is challenged by a dissenting voice

Clifford Stoll goes straight for the information technology jugular. He asks: what are they learning? "That the world is a passive, preprogrammed place, where one click on the mouse gets the right answer? They're learning transitory and shallow relationships from instant e-mail. That discipline isn't necessary when they can zap frustrations with a keystroke. That grammar, analytic thought and human interactions don't matter."

It is probably easier to get a book published if it takes a critical rather than constructive stance on IT and the Internet, because it will stand out from all the hype. And it is time to face some criticism: people need to have their values and beliefs tested.

Mr Stoll is not your time-serving armchair Luddite; his IT credentials are impeccable. He knows what he is talking about; he writes well and expresses lucidly the same reservations that most uninformed opponents have. The unsettling thing is, as you read, you might find that you share some of his opinions. The enormous waves of hyperbole about recent developments in communications are bound to trigger a reaction and most of it will not be as well informed as Mr Stoll's. He believes current claims about the benefits of the Internet and the information superhighway are untrue.

His criticisms are hardly novel. IT is not "real"; instead of sitting at a computer you could be planting tomatoes. IT does not reduce work but causes more. IT is unstable, the formats don't last long and soon will be hard to access. The quality of the information available is not good. IT is expensive and will lead to poorer libraries, not better ones.

His most trenchant criticisms are about the role of computers in education. Admittedly he is writing about the United States and from a university perspective. Mr Stoll finds drill-and-practice software and derides it. He finds students learning about the ocean from the screen when they live only a few miles from the sea. "Sensation has no substitute," he insists, and of course he is right.

He uses the rather crude tactic of imagining that everyone is going to be condemned to live in an unreal environment, that it is either real experience or computers. IT can and should be both. He criticises the indiscriminate use of computers: "When a hammer is the only tool that you know everything begins to look like a nail."

Mr Stoll pleads passionately for the traditional library. He fears that libraries using the Internet will become adept at "supplying the public with fast, low-quality information". The result will not be a library without books, "it will be a library without value".

One of the saddest episodes in the book is Mr Stoll's misery when he discovers that the card index system in his local library has been axed. "Money spent on electronic gizmos and network access fees comes from the same source that buys books and pays librarians," he laments.

Mr Stoll sees the introduction of electronic links as wholly detrimental to teaching, learning and researching. "Isolated facts do not make an education. Meaning does not come from data alone. Creative problem-solving depends on context, interrelationships and experience. The surrounding matrix may be more important than the individual lumps of information. And only human beings can teach the connections between things."

At the end of the book it is hard to quell the feeling that many of his arguments could be deployed against every invention in the last 100 years: the internal combustion engine, electricity, television, radio. All of them, in Mr Stoll's terms, have distanced us from reality. Haven't we been doing that since we left the caves?

Yet he is worth reading. His prose style is fluid; a sense of humour is always there; he is never dull. Substantial, increasing amounts of money are being spent on IT in education. Stoll is one of the first to question the trend. He won't be the last.

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