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 :).

HTML

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).



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

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.

Conclusion

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.

8 comments:

Amanda/Leopard said...

Have you ever tried living your life using your non-dominant hand for everything? It is truly staggering how many day-to-day items are set up for right handed people. It is awkward and often times frustrating for left-handers to adapt to a right-handed world. I feel like you perhaps don't realize how much lefties already adapt to living in a right-handed world. If given the choice between something that feels right, or something that feels awkward, I'm going to choose the one that feels right. Wouldn't you? So before you blast us lefties for using the mouse the way that it feels most comfortable, perhaps you should put yourself in our position.

For the record, I use the mouse with my right hand, even though I'm a lefty, as this is how I learned. But I can't tell you how difficult and awkward it can be to be "aligned" a completely different way than the majority of people, and it really does tick me off to hear that somehow left-handed people should have to adapt to a right-handed world completely. I mean, just because the majority of people are right-handed, doesn't make right-handed people RIGHT, and left-handed people wrong. I think we need hand-neutral things.

To the rest of your post though, I would have to agree. I think the "comforts" of today's technology makes us lose basic skills, like spelling. I also hate navigation systems, but mostly because I'm convinced that my dad is going to crash while using it; he seems to lose all ability to navigate even the simplest trips without it (when he does use it; thankfully he doesn't own one). Ha.

Philip said...

First I apologize for being an arrogant righty, I have two lefty brothers that I love despite this blight on them (though we tend not to bring it up in public, both do use right handed mice though).

In dealing with ADA (American Disabilities Act) issues on a computer was eye opening (no pun intended), this is mostly geared with making software (I was focusing on websites) so that people with disabilities can effectively use them. The assumptions we make as a sighted user is interesting, we look at a page and we see the page hierarchy (headers, subheads, text, indents, lists, bold, italic, etc...) for a person using a screen reader all of these need to be identified for the user, of course the screen reader doesn't actually read the screen, it reads the code behind things. I sat and played with a screen reader called JAWS and was amazed at the assumptions I was making, I realized that in the world of the blind, I was an idiot and making very stupid assumptions. I have always been one pushing in the SGML/XML world that data hierarchy was more important than presentation, now I need to push that to the HTML world.

The mouse concept came to mind when a neighbor bought his 8 year old daughter a left handed mouse, she's at an age where she can easily learn how to be a righty for the mouse (I feel that if she can adapt she should, this one issue could be crippling in a right handed computer dominated world). I'm not saying that everything should be right handed only, but the mouse issue is a tough one.

One of my lefty brothers thought about switching his hand brakes on his bicycle to favor his dominant hand, but I explained to him that the results could be disastrous if he ever rode someone else's bike (you don't want to be crunching down on that front brake too hard, it's where ALL of your stopping power is).

For me I'm dominant right handed for most things, but it's interesting that when it comes to biking I'm a lefty. It's very difficult actually for me to control my bike with only my right hand. This was caused by me using my right hand to get water, blistex, food, etc..., my left hand was always holding the bars and controlling me (I have the same issue in driving a car). On a bike it's tough for me because if I'm doing something that requires 100% use of my right hand (such as carrying a second bike over my shoulder, something I've done a few times), I have to be careful of braking (the left brake is the front brake).

I have had to relearn how to do things lefty before, in playing soccer I spent hours and hours (more like months and months) learning to kick the ball lefty, it wasn't easy. I had to step back, look at each detail of my right handed kick and then take it step by step, slowly walking through it, to learn how to kick lefty (I did that 20 years ago in college and I'm still a good lefty kicker, lord 20 years ago, I'm old). I did this not because it was required of me, but because I was upset with myself for not being able to handle left handed kicks properly (you know, you stop, switch feet, or stutter step, or some other dorky thing, I didn't like my handicap).

FYI: I don't think lefty's are wrong, they tend to be brilliant individuals (don't tell my brothers I think that). Actually come to think of it, every lefty I know is brilliant (for my brothers, one is a PhD and the other is a computer systems designer, the neighbor girl is very gifted). Perhaps lefty's were made this way to keep give us right handed people a better chance.

Amanda/Leopard said...

At 8 years old, this girl is probably already using a computer at school, where chances are, there will only be right handed mice. She's probably already adapting. It is possible to learn both; my boyfriend (who is right handed, but learned how to use the computer from left-handed people) uses the mouse with his left hand at home, and right hand everywhere else.

I grew up in a family of righties, so I often feel awkward doing things as simple as uncorking a bottle of wine, because it seems as if the entire world is made for right handed people. And I know that it is hard for right-handed people to comprehend this, how difficult it is to be a left-handed person.

And I never did think that you thought that left handed people are wrong, but when you make statements that left handed people should adapt to using something right handed, to me it feels like discrimination. The whole being left handed thing is a pet topic for me though, and I often rant about it. But I honestly think that we need more hand neutral things.

There have been studies done on left handed people, and I think that some of the reason why they excel is that they're already used to adapting, and because they have to adapt to using their right hand for a lot of things, they have greater use of both sides of their brains. Plus, as it's been said to me before, we're the only ones in our "right" minds. ;)

Philip said...

I didn't mean to be discriminating, all I was saying is that as far as mice are concerned it is a right hand dominated world, if you learn only to use a mouse left handed you may be handicapping yourself in future jobs (as unfair is that is, it's the reality right now). My office mouse seems to be hand neutral, but I think it's slightly modified for right handers, my home mouse is 100% modified for right handers, a lefty would go nuts with it.

Never thought about cork screws, I guess if you ever get to a point that you can't figure it out, it means you need to stop drinking ;).

I do have some tools in my house (such as my cheese grater) which is lefty and righty, you just take it apart, switch sides and you're lefty (my daughter always puts it together wrong, or right in your case, and I'm always fixing it).

FYI: We both write too much ;).

Amanda/Leopard said...

To that, I would say that you're probably over worrying, left handed people, especially those that live with right handed people, are quick to adapt. I can use right handed scissors, even though they're uncomfortable. I mean, I'm just so used to things feeling "off" (for lack of a better term) that I often don't realize that the reason it's so uncomfortable in the first place is that it's for right handers, not left.

Haha, my problem is that I turn the bottle, not the cork screw. The end result is the same, but my mom pointed it out to me one day, and I pretty much told her that I was going to do it whichever way I wanted, no matter how silly it looked.

And yes, we write a lot. I've always been that way, though.

IK said...
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The Prickly Press said...
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Philip said...

I don't know, most of the technology seems to be thinking for me, I learn from nav systems, but I make a point to learn, I don't learn from spell check (I even find myself knowing I'm spelling wrong and that spell check will fix it)