A rant

This post will a rant about .doc-files, paper schedules, poorly maintained course websites and over-reliance on proprietary technology (i.e. Microsoft and Facebook).

Recently I was at a pedagogical conference here in Lund, and it gave me many inspirations. The reason for this post is the realization I made during a talk about digital learning tools. A student representative in the audience asked a question in which she mentioned courses where the schedule was not even available online, it was a posted on paper in the department notice board. The person she asked, the very same person who ten minutes earlier had demonstrated some online training system, was very honest and said that he and probably most in his generation (he looked to be in his late forties) don't even recognize these things as problems.

Now this might seem obvious to many of you, but this really opened my eyes. Of course I know that some, in particular older, people don't find computers and the Internet to be a natural tool. But I always assumed that they were at least aware of the fact that their students do. And not only that their students find the Internet to be a useful tool, but that they find it to be the ONLY tool. There is a simple guideline one can use here. 
If it doesn't exist online, it doesn't exist at all.

This isn't just isolated to students. According to this conference talk:
46% [of researchers] admitted that there was a possibility that they would omit from their research papers that were not available electronically.

There is only one place for information, and that is online. Period. Schedules and materials should ONLY exist online. I don't only mean that the web content shouldn't be an afterthought. I'm saying it should be the only thought. Yes, I thoroughly mean that use of paper to communicate with students should be banned. No schedules, and no handouts should EVER be delivered on paper in the class room. Any changes to said materials should not be communicated through an e-mail bombing. The material should be changed on the course website. Any other communication is to be regarded as a courtesy service by the teacher.

The reason for my draconian views is to make it easy for people who don't understand this tool. Schedules and such should only exist online because that way, no one can claim that they forgot to update the online version when they updated their paper version.

But even among people who have embraced the Internet, there are some issues. Every time a teacher e-mail bombs their students with .doc files, my head impacts my desk. Why? Because this pisses me off to no end. If I get a .docx file, I'll actually cleave the desk in two like a karate master punching through bricks. I seriously believe that it should be illegal for a government organization (which the university is here) to communicate with external parties (students) using non-free formats, which .doc files are. To produce and read them (properly) you need Microsoft Word. You'll probably need a specific version of it too. If the teacher wrote the document using Word 2010 and saved it as a .docx file, you can bet that you'll get a warning when you open it in another version such as Word 2000.

But even the use of Word at all is wrong. Write your documents in any editor you like, including Word, but when it's time to save that final version which will be delivered others, save it in a format which everyone can read. Word doesn't even exist for Linux, which we use at my department. Yet the rest of the university insists on mailing these damned .doc-files everywhere. So here I'll define the only valid formats to send documents as:
Those are the only file formats that are OK. PDF is proprietary but it has free reader(s) for all operating systems I know of. And most computers can create them as simply as selecting PDF instead of your normal printer when you hit CTRL-P. We can make the same definition for compressed files.
7-ZIP or ZIP
Today, all operating systems come with a way to open zip-files. So it's a given. If a better compression is needed, 7-ZIP hands down. It's open source, has programs for all systems and is damned good.

The next issue that bugs me is how schedules are used and created. Having the schedule online good but it's not enough. This includes cases where people mail you about seminars and stuff. If it is important enough to mail everyone about, it's important enough to get its own ical-download.
A schedule should only exist as an online version which is exportable/importable using XML and ICAL formats.
This doesn't mean anything for how the schedule is presented online. Have a look at my page for the BINP13 course. The course schedule exists as a Google Calendar, which offers ical and xml exports. I then chose to have a HTML-version of the schedule on the page. This is how a schedule should be done.

Final thing I'd like to mention: Facebook is not a solution, Facebook is a problem. It's merely an online version of a .docx file. Not only is the system proprietary, it is notoriously unstable (as in Facebook can decide to close your account and delete your stuff without reason) and students are then forced to get an account. I don't care that 95% of students have Facebook-accounts. You can never assume or force someone to get an account at a third party to gain access to course information.

I'd just like to end with a suggestion for digitally confused teachers. If you can't do it, if you don't want to do it, ask the students to do it. Many of them probably already make their own digital schedules (I do), or create groups on Facebook for a specific course. Ask them, and they will assist.


So now all the pages are somewhat completed. At least there are no place holders any more. Now I might actually write a post or two here.