Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Five Orders of Technology OR Why OpenOffice Impress Sucks

I don't have decades of experience supporting technology, but in the few years I've been at the academies I've noticed that several mistakes I've made were as a result of my failure to properly understand what I've come to refer to as the "Five Orders of Technology". The Order is a classification system of technology tools that has been, in my experience, a useful way of evaluating both potential purchases as well as existing technology and the ways to best support its use.

Technology tools at the top of the Order are the most preferred. They are tools that are both good AND predictable, meaning they accomplishes useful tasks with a high degree of quality while operating in a consistent and reliable manner. Examples would be a quality gigabit ethernet switch or an excellent industrial air conditioner.

The second order of technology are tools that are worth having, but just barely. They are bad, but operate predictably. They might be a network hub or Microsoft's Movie Maker. Neither one of these tools is particularly good at what it is built to do, but at least they both can be depended upon to accomplish what they do with consistency.

The third order of technology is a bit of a misnomer. It is to have no technology at all. This may seem counterintuitive, but I'll explain later on why this is where "no technology" belongs in the order.

Fourth in the Order of technology is that which is good but unreliable. It is like Google Chrome on my home theater PC. It works beautifully, but crashes at unpredictable times (unless I have guests over and am trying to show them something cool on the Internet. Then it can be depended upon to crash without fail).

The fifth and least desirable level of technology is that which is both bad AND unreliable. It is at this lowest and least preferred level that OpenOffice Impress resides. It is bad software in nearly every sense of the word: unintuitive, complicated, overwhelming, underpowered, and slow. It is also unreliable; actions do not behave in predictable ways. Bullet points, for example, move higher or lower on text (or vanish altogether) depending on seemingly arbitrary and unseen circumstances.

Using OpenOffice Impress is an obvious exercise in self-flagellation and clearly worse than good and reliable software, but is it really worse than having no presentation software at all as suggested by the Order? Allow me to illustrate how it is with the example of a restaurant chef and his refrigerator.

The first order of technology assumes the chef has a high quality refrigerator that works well and dependably. It keeps his ingredients fresh and rarely fails (or maybe even has a backup power mechanism in the event of failure).

At the second order, the chef has a lesser quality fridge, but one that works predictably. Maybe it doesn't have as much room, or the same features, or isn't as customizable as the top tier refrigerators, but it does the job the chef asks of it and rarely lets him down.

The third order gives the chef no refrigerator at all. This is a burden, but at least it is predictable. The chef knows he does not have the ability to keep ingredients cold, and so devises methods of running his kitchen that do not require that ability. Perhaps ice is brought daily and kept in a cooler or ingredients are purchased each morning instead of once per week. The point is that the chef can adapt to his situation because he knows what to expect.

The fourth order assumes the chef has a top quality refrigerator that regularly malfunctions. Perhaps it powers off in the middle of the night, spoiling the food it was supposed to keep fresh. Maybe it affects other tools in its surroundings by blowing fuses or short circuiting other devices. In any case, the quality of the device is overwhelmed by its unreliability and the chef's work is made more challenging for it. Some mornings he shows up and his ingredients are perfectly preserved, ready for preparation. Other mornings are disastrous, and he is left scrambling for solutions.

The fifth order is worse than the fourth only in that the refrigerator is of a lower initial quality. This difference is negligible really, as the main problem continues to be the predictability of the fridge, not its quality. (In fact, it could be argued that the fifth order is actually preferable to the fourth in that the chef might be less frustrated by unpredictable performance from a substandard refrigerator than a top caliber one, and thus more likely to either rid himself of the technology and move up to order 3, or purchase a new one and move to order 1 or 2).

There are, of course, situations when bad and unpredictable technology is preferable to no technology at all. If I were stranded on a desert island, for example, I think I'd rather have a cheap and unreliable long-wave radio than no radio at all. Similarly, it might be embarrassing for me to have Google Chrome crash when I have guests over, but I prefer it to having no browser at all.

In production environments, however, like a school or a classroom, predictability is much more important (as seen with the chef illustration). It is far better, for example, for a teacher to know that there are no laptops to use this month than to design a lesson around using laptops only to discover they aren't working properly. The former scenario at least allows the teacher the opportunity to plan a non technology-infused lesson, while the latter wastes both the teacher's and students' time and, perhaps even more damaging, leads eventually to their developing a wary and apprehensive attitude towards the technology itself.

In my experience, if a user is burned by unpredictable technology more than twice, they "learn their lesson" and are much less likely to attempt to use that technology in the future. This attitude can prevail even in the face of updates, troubleshooting, or even the wholesale replacement of the technology and is, of course, especially potent if that particular teacher is already fishing for an excuse to dismiss the use of the technology in the first place.

Therefore, in an age when seemingly everyone is looking to technology to bridge divides in education and push student achievement higher, not heeding the implications of the 5 Orders of Technology is, in my opinion, a big mistake.


Tucanae Services said...

Oh Lord. A great presentation till then end, then it drifted off onto the shoals rudderless. I mean the education angle. I will grant that everyone is looking for technology as some magic cure in the educational market. Short answer -- Not gonna happen.

Pushing a mouse around and tapping a few keys are not the same as analytical comprehension. Ever. Johnny can graph it using R. Format it using Abiword. Pretty print it using PDF. But bottom line can Johnny comprehend what the graph says? The answer is no.

I am seeing this in the classroom every night where I teach. I won't suggest that technology not be used as there is a purpose and need. But it ought to be offered as reward for being able to understand thru brute force pen and paper what is being presented and taught. Bottom line --

"I can teach it to you, but I can't learn it for you!"

Nor can technology at the level you suggest.

But it was a great article in the main.

Clayton Dillard said...

This blog post was hilarious in the most pleasant and wonderful way! I found your grasp of presentation and use of well placed words to be very amusing and delightful. I had never heard of The Five Orders of Technology but I am familiar with the fact that OpenOffice Impress SUCKS! Thanks for the laughs and for your time writing the article!

Mechatotoro said...

I agree with Tucane Services.
I use Impress in my classes all the time and it never fails, whereas I've seen PowerPoint rebel against its users regularly. I guess the problem is one of adaptation. If I want Impress to behave as PowerPoint does (not in performance, but in procedure), the problem is not Impress, but my expectation. Following your analogy, I can say that the "chef" is angry because, instead of a fridge, Impress is a microwave oven and the chef, following common training,expects it to work as a conventional oven. Who is then to blame?