Microsoft Word in schools

Didith Rodrigo, the chair of my alma mater's computer science department, seems to be getting a bit frustrated with people who've asked her to consider teaching students something other than Microsoft Word for word processing. She reasons: "I think that teaching tools is need-based. If there is some reason that the tool is more appropriate for the need, then fine. If not, then don't fix what isn't broken."

I'm going to go on a bit of a rant because I feel that it's important to expose students to choices that they might not otherwise encounter on their own. I agree with Didith's main point at the end - that it's not about the tools - but my particular bone here is that university's also where students should learn to abstract general principles.

This is how I understand the educational system's _supposed_ to work: people who want to learn about specific things go to vocational schools and workshops, and people who want to learn about abstractions and things they'd never encounter on their own go to university.

We shouldn't teach Microsoft Word. We should teach writing (note: not even word processing). We shouldn't teach Microsoft Powerpoint. We should teach presentation. We shouldn't teach Microsoft Excel. We should teach data analysis.

The problems these students face go _way_ beyond the tools. You can inflict death by bullet point in OpenOffice.org Impress just as easily as you can in Microsoft Powerpoint. So why not spend valuable class time talking about the principles of the thing instead of the tools? (Oh, if I had a dime for every word someone's read off the slides...)

Here's a quote that captures what I think:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Fill them with the longing to write wonderful articles and make effective presentations! Inspire them through your examples! Help them reach out through their words! As long as students write only for their teachers and their classmates, you'll see bad prose and hear people read off slides. Show them examples, point out common mistakes and show them how they can improve, and put them in front of audiences that care about what they're interested in... If you can set them on fire, they'll _learn_ about all the nifty tricks hidden in whatever software they use - and it will be about the result, not the tool!

Note to self: I need to learn how to write really, really well. I also need to learn how to present really, really well. Then I need to figure out how to teach this while inspiring by example. I _so_ want to run a class on "Communication for Geeks", or something like that. ;)

But wait! Wasn't this supposed to be a rant about open source in education and how students should be exposed to open source alternatives?

I've written a fair bit about this in the past, but let's look at the Atenean case more closely. For the sake of argument, let's assume that there _aren't_ financial reasons to choose open source. The stereotype of the Atenean student is a middle-class or rich student who can well afford to buy legitimate versions of Microsoft Office. Truth is, quite a few people are on scholarships. Besides, most people quite happily pirate software or use whatever their computer dealer "bundled" with their computer because they just don't care about software rights or they don't think Microsoft deserves even _more_ money.

So let's ditch the financial and ethical incentives, and talk about the pedagogical one instead.

I taught for a short while, and even that short a while was enough to make me feel the pressure to cover everything in the curriculum. If a teacher's already having a hard enough time covering all the little features of one thing or another, how on earth is that teacher going to find time to explore and discuss alternatives? Won't that confuse the students and make them lose confidence?

I feel quite strongly that we should drag people out of their comfort zones every so often, particularly in university when they can mess up without losing money. I suspect that one of the best ways to check whether students can abstract the notion of, say, emphasizing text is to throw them at an unfamiliar but usable word processor like OpenOffice.org and see if they can figure out what to do. (Open source geeks can substitute "Microsoft Word" or "Emacs" as appropriate.)

I _want_ to make students feel a little bit uncomfortable. That discomfort is what drives learning in the future, where it's most important. I don't want students to stick only to what they know how to do. They should keep learning!

This belief is probably not going to make me very popular with students, most of whom would like to get through school with as little effort as possible - but we need to help them develop critical thinking and abstraction, and we need to help them figure out how to figure things out.

I think that to know one thing is to know that one thing, but to know two things is to know two things, their similarities and differences - _and_ to know that I can learn more.

It doesn't even have to be open vs closed source. It could be two closed source ways of doing things, two open ways of doing things, whatever. But it has to be sufficiently different to force the students to think about their abstractions and to expose bugs in their understandings... =)

Hey, would _you_ test a program with only one test case? ;)

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  • Hi sacha! i love this post! I can relate to it so much.. We’re really in the middle of converting our MS Office workbook to OpenOffice.org… There are a lot of arguments about this and I can point them to this article to see the light.. Thanks! :)

  • Wow, thanks for finding this old post, Mylene! =) Good luck and have fun!