Reflection Squared: On Clifford Stoll’s “High Tech Heretic”

closeThis post was published 8 years 7 months 14 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

The other day, I was browsing the computer shelves at a local Border’s book store. I came across Cliff Stoll’s acclaimed book, The Cuckoo’s Egg. My dad’s recommended the story to me in the past, and the premise was intriguing. After all, who wouldn’t want to read a non-fiction account of cyber espionage that reads like a top fiction mystery? I picked up the book and proceeded to spend the next two hours engrossed, reading right through the soft muttering and louder tapping of the woman in the chair beside me.

Of course, the time to depart arrived and I had to stop. Still, I read about 25% of the book in one sitting. I replaced the book on the shelf, noting to look for it at the library and/or add it to my wish list. (Even if I wanted to buy it, I wasn’t exactly in a position to do so.)

The next day, en route to the upstairs computer lab, I checked the public library catalog. The Cuckoo’s Egg wasn’t in stock, and was checked out until the 21st of April, but I noticed that one of Stoll’s other books was: High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. On impulse, I checked the book out.

What I found inside, later, was intriguing. My parents have been skeptical of computers for a while. Though my dad uses them for his business, and my mom is warming up to them after years of asking me why I find them so interesting,1 there’s still a big disconnect between us.2 I’ve vaguely known the reasoning behind their conclusions for years, but High Tech Heretic has shed some light on the details—and not monitor glow.

Programmed Instruction

Despite my parents’ computer skepticism, I took my entire high school education online. I believe it was a good experience, though not for the reasons one might expect. It’s not that I necessarily learned more than I would have in a conventional school—though I probably did, since the online coursework better fit my learning style—but rather that I spent a good chunk of my “school” time correcting the course material. Lazy QA teams had left the text, quizzes, and tests riddled with little errors. Through my teachers, I sent corrections, and my correction work earned back more than a few points that were wrongfully denied me in nearly every course—though I never got so much as a “Thank you” from the course distributors. (A rare few courses were bereft of glitches. I treasured them, because I didn’t have to keep second-guessing everything.)

What was interesting about some of the corrections, though, was that sometimes it was just a matter of input formats. Most of the graded tests were multiple-choice, but many of the in-text “Self-Check” quizzes featured free-text inputs. Such quizzes were graded by JavaScript code, to give students an idea of how well they understood the material. But some of them had vague or quirky requirements about how answers were entered, and some of the quirky expectations made by the programmers resulted in points lost by students.

Stoll addresses the issue on page 16, in reference to B. F. Skinner’s experiments with programmed instruction in the 1950s. Skinner’s approach was nothing new, really—it mimicked a popular learning method preached by many educators then and now: repeat a topic until the student demonstrates understanding. Skinner’s machines rewarded students for correct answers with further exploration of the topic, while incorrect answers led to review.3 However:

…programmed instruction flopped. The machine forced kids to regurgitate whatever answers the programmer wanted. There was no place for innovation, creativity, whimsy, or improvisation.

This sounds very familiar. Almost too familiar. The quizzes in my online coursework sometimes had bizarre expectations for what was to be typed into the text boxes. I once had a quiz (thankfully not graded) that balked at accepting a floating-point number (0.17 or something) with the leading zero; the expected input was .17 and too bad if you’ve been trained to put in the leading zero. The programmers were treating all text box inputs as strings, rather than parsing the values into numbers when appropriate. We all know that programmers are lazy, but certain kinds of laziness are inexcusable.

Skinner’s ideas persisted, even into the years of my childhood. I had plenty of educational computer games in my youth, and maybe they did help teach me. Very little of what I know comes from conventional schooling—I know that much. Reading, writing, arithmetic, higher math, typing, (amateur) programming—all of it I learned outside the classroom. Reader Rabbit, Treasure Math Storm, and Edmark’s Mighty Math software deserve more credit for my education than any school classroom I ever set foot in. Forgive me if it sounds like bragging, but I could read and write circles around most of my traditionally-educated friends all through my schooling. Kumon and my learning-friendly home environment can take the credit for my perfect score on the ACT’s English section, not the school system.

Stoll also brings up computers in the classroom repeatedly. One great example is the replacement of science labs with computer programs. My local high school has a chemistry/physics lab, but an unscientific sample of the classes taught in the room shows much greater use of the computers for experimentation, rather than the lab equipment.

Learning the Tools, Not the Trades

Stoll also brings up the issue of learning how to use specific tools rather than the concepts underlying them. Chiefly discussed in the chapter “Calculating Against Calculators”, the arguments focus on numerical fields; however, the thread is present practically from the beginning and applied to all subjects.

Through school, students are handed calculators in math class. They’re trained to punch in the numbers and trust the calculator to come up with the right answer. Now, common sense dictates that one should always be able to estimate, so as to be able to catch errors in a calculation. In theory, students are taught to mentally check the calculator’s results; in practice, assignments are turned in with answers stating that a radio tower is a fraction of a millimeter tall.

On page 85, the University of Illinois is used as an example. The school developed a calculus course centered on the Mathematica software. As such, the students learned how to integrate functions using Mathematica, rather than learning how to integrate. Students trained to use certain software programs for problem-solving often didn’t know what to do when the electronic part of the equation (sorry) was removed.

In my math classes, I can remember very few times when I wasn’t encouraged to use a calculator. A TI graphing calculator was a requirement for high school math classes, but I got through four years of online instruction with a photoelectrically-powered scientific calculator, used mostly for checking myself and dealing with nasty decimals. (I was fine graphic linear equations on graphing paper, but I did cave in and download a software program to do the parabolic and asymptotic functions for me.)

Learning tools at the expense of the underlying concepts isn’t just limited to math. From my own experience, as well as friends’, I’ve seen courses teach how to use a particular software program to solve a problem, without explaining what the program does. Modern English course requirements for electronically-submitted papers just begs for students to rely on spell-checking software. Many of my fellow students routinely misspelled even the most common and simple words. I can’t help but blame Microsoft Word; it’s the de facto standard for word processing these days, and defaults to automatically correcting a huge list of common misspellings so sometimes the user doesn’t even know he’s made a mistake. That’s a bad idea for software used in education.

Systems Design Philosophy

Perhaps one of the best points made in the book is taken from David Gelernter’s thesis: “Technology’s most important obligation is to get out of the way.” This point, from page 139, illustrates the basic purpose of machinery: making life easier. Bad design and useless features remove the helpful aspect of technology and replace it with nuisance.

Ah, PowerPoint

Following chapters on, among other things, the wiring of libraries and the planned obsolescence of computer systems, an entire chapter is devoted to PowerPoint and its fellow presentation software products. I thought the best part of this chapter was the section discussing the use of presentations in schools.

With my online learning experience, I was thankfully spared most of the PowerPoint junk that has made its way into the school curriculum. However, I had teachers in the offline world as well, and a few of them used PowerPoint to disastrous effect.

One such teacher followed the model for meetings presented earlier in the chapter: Notes for the students, slides on the screen; the lectures consisted of reading the slides aloud, with zero additional information presented in the spoken words. I was always bored to tears in that class. It was ironic that the course title was “Public Speaking”, since such a class should be teaching students how to keep an audience’s attention instead of how to make the audience yawn.

Another teacher—this was in a public school—taught her AP U.S. Government course using PowerPoint. She read from the slides, often rushing through and/or skipping slides for time (no worries, the slides were available on her personal Web page for study at home). Her habit of putting paragraphs on the slides wasn’t exactly prime PowerPoint use, but at least she added extra tidbits to her lectures that weren’t in the textbook or on the screen.

I should also note that part of that Government class was a group presentation project, on which I got a good grade just by going up and reading a few of the several slides produced by my group while I was sick. That isn’t a complaint—I like good grades just as much as the next guy—but I didn’t really have any input whatsoever on the project save for a few grammatical corrections. (I won’t get into how my classmates made it difficult for me to contribute, even though I was perfectly willing to do my share.4)

I present these examples mainly to illustrate my own personal experience with the problems Cliff mentions on pages 182–183. (It’s interesting that his main classroom example also involves a social studies teacher.) I’m sure educators would be quick to defend the growing use of PowerPoint in schools by citing technological familiarity for future job use, same as they would for school Internet connections (which are useful, but often inadequately restricted).

Dated Material?

I did have the thought throughout the book, however, that perhaps some of Stoll’s opinions would be quite different if written today. In particular, page 189’s assertion that professional editors and journalists just don’t exist on the Internet is no longer true. That assertion is a fundamental point in several arguments following—arguments that would probably be different (if only slightly) if written from a 2010 perspective instead of a 1999 perspective.

Similarly, page 191 asserts that search engines don’t understand concepts and ideas, only words. Today’s indexing engines aren’t perfect, but great strides have been made in machine understanding of language. Just look at services like Aardvark. (This is, of course, just a tiny subset of the possible examples I could have pulled from the book.)

Of course some things—unfortunately—never seem to change. I stupidly didn’t note the location of it, but somewhere in the latter part of the book Stoll laments that search engines rely on correct spelling to find information. Spelling is a skill seldom taught or learned in today’s world (it seems), and we rely more than ever on spell-checkers. Many services offer their own (see Gmail & Google Docs as examples) in the event that the user’s browser doesn’t have one already built in. Search engines have been trained to recognize our mistakes in queries (à la Google’s classic “Did you mean?” lines) and sometimes I think they also detect mistakes in pages they index.


High-Tech Heretic contains a good many well-placed warnings, and I very much appreciate Stoll’s opinions on the replacement of human and paper resources with technology. However, I hope that his later writings are better edited. This book has quite good spelling (good, since he brought up that issue) but the grammar is lacking in a few spots; I found a decent number of omitted or misplaced words.

Nitpicking aside, the message of the book is clear and appreciated. Technology has a place, and we shouldn’t let it get out of the corner we’ve set aside for it.

Update (05/04): Corrected missing markup that caused most of the text to appear as a giant footnote. Proofreading failure on my part; sorry!


  1. She’s begun asking me about websites and such: Hosting recommendations, platform suggestions, that sort of thing. It’s kind of cool that she’s interested now. []
  2. I used to go to my dad with questions about the computer. Now, he comes to me with his questions and I use search engines to find answers for my own. []
  3. I had several experiences with this type of learning, including both online (with Stanford’s EPGY program) and off (with Kumon, a Japanese-originated curriculum in math and reading). []
  4. Schools seem to use group projects a lot without teaching students how to collaborate, kind of like a lot of theatre classes tell the actors to project without getting into the mechanics of doing so. []


I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

One Comment:

  1. I was interested to see your comments from a perspective that actual lived out on-line education. I ran across your article looking up Stoll references, as I am commenting on a “ipads may save US education” article. Thanks for your insights!

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