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Open or Rigid?: Take #3 on Standards

Greg Ritter responds: The Pain of Multiplicity

Below, I offer a different perspective on some of Greg’s thoughts. An important note: The intended use of standards will largely shape perspective. I’m concerned about standards as an end-user. I care more about what a standard does…rather than how it does it. As such, simplicity, ease of use, concrete benefits, etc. are important to me. Greg may have an entirely different perspective based on his needs for standards.

Greg: I don’t believe you can create standards like you build software. “Release early, release often” doesn’t work for standards. Standards, by definition have to be . . . well, standard!
Standards should be like software development…they should reflect the needs of the end user…and they should reflect constant change. The end user should drive their development. Standards do change frequently…but it is important that the new versions are backward compatible. At best, a standard is a guideline that is relevant at a point in time…but created with the realization that users will outgrow its usefulness.

Greg: Everyone in the instructional technology community is feeling frustration over this standards stuff. But I don’t think the issue is the complexity of the standards, nor do I think the issue is a disconnect between the standards and the functional needs/desires of users.
Ok…I’ll bite…if not either of these two, what is the source of frustration then? I can only speak for myself…the frustration is two-fold: complex standards that seek to do too much…which directly relates to the disconnect that I feel as an end user between my needs and current standards. As stated earlier, the end product can be simple to use, but if it doesn’t meet my needs, I won’t use it.

Greg: We are at — and have been for a decade or more — the “Beta/VHS” stage of instructional technology standards. There are multiple standards that don’t mesh together well.
First: the Beta/VHS standard was one of physical limitations. They literally cannot exist together in the same machine. Standards, however, can. With standards, we can loosely agree…and still connect.
The other part of the Beta/VHS analogy supports my earlier point: a standard is a “point in time”…destined to be obsolete. DVD has since replaced VHS. Why? Consumer needs/convenience/price…etc. – technology changed…so did the “standard”.
Second: I agree with Greg that we have standards that don’t mesh…but I think we differ on the solution. I say standards must be focused and driven by user needs (with a simple user-level interface)…whereas he finds fault with the nature of multiplicity itself.

Greg: George said “the greatest enemy is complexity.” I disagree. Complexity in standards is fine; multiplicity is the enemy of standardization.
I don’t think multiplicity is bad. I think multiplicity (as expressed in diversity) is very healthy. It is the touch point of innovation…and it is difficult to picture one standard that “does it all”. We need options. HTML, Javascript, Flash…are all different tools used for different reasons (but they work together). Does that make multiplicity bad? Multiplicity is needed for choice.
…and to place context on my statement of complexity…I said: “I think a similar focus needs to be brought to learning and technology adoption. Our greatest enemy is complexity.” When it comes to adoption…complexity IS the enemy. Multiplicity exists in the field of blogging: Blogger, Movable Type, Radio, etc…and it seems to work fine…but making things too complex would kill the adoption. Blogging has succeeded because of simplicity.

Perhaps, some of our differences relate to larger issues of how we like to organize our world (and how we think the world should be organized). I prefer chaotic and unstructured…but linked. On the opposite end of the continuum (and I’m not trying to place Greg anywhere on it…I don’t know enough of his opinions) is formal and structured. To me, the debate is largely about Internet-style versus traditional, fostering versus controlling, knowledge economy versus manufacturing.

In this context, I believe chaos holds pattern…things change too quickly to be built permanently…and effectiveness is in flexibility (i.e. creating to allow for growth and various application…all driven by the end user).

One Comment

  1. Rob Reynolds wrote:

    George,

    I think you’re right on the money! Speaking from my experience as teacher I can definitely agree that multiplicity is a good thin whereas complexity is evil (As a former IT Director this is even more true).

    Two problems as I see it: 1) People who create standards and large software platforms do not allow their work to be user-driven; 2)There is an assumption that teachers only want simple software vecause they do not have the time and inclination to “get under the hood.” My experience reveals something much different. When we (teachers) feel that there is something of value for our students, we will go to great lengths and take whatever time is necessary to enhance the learning process.

    It is complexity that keeps us from seeing the value of technologies and that frustrates us about the evolution of education in general.

    Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 8:00 am | Permalink