January 17, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

“Standards” Thinking

Presently, I'm involved with a project here at MSC to develop an online writing lab, or OWL. Many OWLs exist on the internet; the most well known is probably Purdue's. Unlike Purdue's, our OWL proposes to be more "interactive" by providing exercises that test materials presented in the OWL. I initially agreed to work with this project because I believe that web-based tutorials are beneficial to more users, since any computer can run a web browser.

Most of the writing has been completed on this project. Now it is in the hands of the members of the IT team to digitize what we in the Humanities (and other divisions) have written. We were given the URL above and asked to look at what they have coded so far, but in order to view the nascent project, we need to have Macromedia's free Authorware player (no, I will not link to it). This requirement struck me as a bit odd, so I asked about it. They explained: in order to construct many of the exercises, the programmers needed another environment to supplement the web-based information; therefore, since MSC has a license for Authorware, they decided to use this product. I was never asked about this, I thought. Aren't I part of the team? Well, obviously, since I am in the Division of Humanities, I do not know about the technical side of this, right?

Directing my browser to Macromedia to get the needed browser helper, I hit a solid wall: there is no Authorware player for Mac OSX, nor is there a player for any version of Unix. Only every flavor of Windoze and the Mac OS 9 are supported. Seeing this fact, I wrote to the team suggesting a more ubiquitious solution: Flash. It will do the same things that Authorware does (perhaps better) and is available to almost any operating system I can think of. If they know how to program in Authorware, they must know Flash — I took a course in both during my Ph.D. work, and they are very similar.

The response was not encouraging: due to the project's tight schedule, the team had to use software that was on-hand, since they already had a script programmed in Authorware. They continue:

In the future we may recreate the files in Flash if time permits. In the past (really to date, too) we have designed only for the campus standard because we can get more functionality in less time by designing for one standard only. I anticipate problems with the site trying to get along with Macs.

The difficulty I was having is due to the fact that I am a deviant user of a non-standard platform. Indeed, 90% of the world's computer users have a box running Windoze. I guess this fact justifies the "campus standard." Maybe it does, but I posit that hiding behind standards at an institution of higher education is an ethical travesty. Who makes these "standards" anyway? Why are they standards? I would like reasons. Is it true that anyone who is not using the "campus standard" does not deserve to learn about writing? Are we just "trouble" — nuisances that have to be dealt with with conciliatory language and marginalized through "standards"? Is this similar to saying that anyone who does not practice Christianity does not deserve to live in America? That anyone who does not have white skin or exterior genitalia should not be in the work place? Are these issues at all related, or am I making too much out of this?

The IT team working on this is excellent. They have done great things in a short time, and they deserve kudos. Yet, standards thinking will get us all into trouble — it has gotten us into trouble in the past. When more and more of our lives become intertwined with our technology, notions of "standards" may develop us into Borgs, if it hasn't already.