Sunday, January 11, 2009

Technology vs Learning

I have a ongoing debate as to if things like spell check, navigation systems, and other tools (such as Dreamweaver) are making us forget how to do things by scratch. My argument is that while some of these tools help us, others actually handicap us.

Spell Check

OK I'm not sure what I would do without an active spell checker, for my blog I run spell check before I post (if not every other word would be wrong). In Outlook, Word, and my iPhone everything is checked as I type it (I use Lotus Notes at the office, IBM should be embarrassed by Lotus, it's heavy, slow, doesn't do it's job well, and tries to make you do everything just like it wants you to, well come to think of it, that is IBM isn't it?). My argument here though is that the spell checker has actually made me a worse speller, it fixes things on the fly, it doesn't require me to learn, it just does the job, I see this good and bad, since now I'm handicapped in spelling capability.

Mouse Trap

How many people know how to use the keyboard for EVERYTHING in Windows or on a Mac? Probably not many? Being an old timer I not only know how to use a keyboard for everything (I take pride in that), but I also know how to use.... DOS... (gasp!). I've had many times where I've had to use a mouseless computer, usually when working on servers that don't like the USB mouse (or KVM I'm using) or configuring a new PC that for some reason doesn't like my mouse. I admit that I'm not the normal user and that I have need to use a mouseless PC, but how many people would be out of luck if their mouse decided it was time to go on holiday. The use of a mouse has crippled people and they will be lost without one.

A corollary to this (being a Mathematician I like using words like "corollary") is the left handed user who insists on using a left handed mouse in a right handed world. Where are they going to be if they are stuck using a right handed mouse? While it might be easier for them to use a left handed mouse I think they could avoid this mouse trap by learning how to use a right handed mouse.

Navigation Systems

This one is interesting. Navigation systems help me learn how to get from point A to point B. Others have told me that they don't learn how, they just follow the navigation system. For me if I travel somewhere a few times, I'll learn how to get there. I don't enjoy trusting software completely where my life is involved :).


This is my current issue du jour. I've noticed recently that the use of tools such as Dreamweaver for designers and Visual Studio for developers have dummed our designers down some, well not dumb, they tend to be brilliant and talented individuals, but they no longer have much need to understand HTML. This unfortunately is an invalid assumption. There are items that require the use of HTML headings, it seems that everything, including this blog, use DIV elements everywhere. This makes life very difficult for screen readers tools developed for ADA (American Disabilities Act - Section 508), which use the HTML headings for navigation. My study of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) shows site owners are also getting shot in the foot because the DIV elements don't get indexed properly by tools such as Google and Yahoo! that use the heading elements for understanding a pages structure and how to properly index. It's interesting that what helps ADA also helps SEO. DIV produces elements that are good for the eye, but bad for structure.

HTML is an SGML application, SGML focus' on structure instead of style, but HTML has been bastardized to be good for the eye and not be required to follow the structure rule (people need to learn that structure is important). In talking to developers and designers alike they are under the assumption that DIV is the only way to go, they are very surprised when I show them that I can create the exact same layout using heading tags (of course I need to apply styles to the h1, h2, ..., h6 elements in order to remove their ugly pre-defined styles, but this is simple to achieve).

h1,h2,h3,h4,h5,h6 {font-size:1em; padding:0; margin:0; font-weight:normal;}

With a few tricks, a little research to see what others have done, and some creativity, core HTML can be made to do anything that DIV tags can do. There needs to be a push to reintroduce structure into HTML (this includes the use of p, blockquotes, lists, bold, italic, etc... tags), these all denote structure that is contained in the tag itself and is lost to the CSS/DIV combination.


Well I'm not sure what to conclude here, while I find some technology is helpful to me, other technology is handicapping me and others. We should require our designers and developers to have a core understanding of HTML, they should be taught to build pages by hand and what is considered good HTML. If not then some sort of technology needs to be introduced to allow the insertion of headings into CSS (something like "heading:level1;" might be a good idea), this would tell the automated browsers what they need to know.