Is MS Word an educational technology?
above: Retired Edtech
Ah, the word processor. It's ubiquitous both in business and in schools. I was reminded of how easy it is take word processing for granted by two activities colliding: 1. reading Matthew Kirschenbaum's “literary history” of word processing and 2. finding out (again) that my students are aware of no other word processing or text-creating tools beyond MS Word or Google Docs.
That text production has become synonymous with Word is, as ever, deeply troubling. It is also prompt for a very simple teaching suggestion useful for students at all levels.
Try a different program for text editing with students. Explore its capabilities, audience, function, and history.
This is, in one sense, good old “mediation,” changing the medium as a way to think through critical features. Seeing other options can be ho-hum for some, mind-blowing for others. In both cases it's an easy stepping stone to technological criticism.
As so much critical work makes clear, software like MS Word encodes a set of assumptions about the world, about its users and audience; it conditions the kind of product that is produced; and it stores its data in a particular format that impacts how that data can be shared, transmitted, and preserved. Using something — anything — else quickly exposes those assumptions by highlighting contrasts and shared features.
Lowest bar: Even opening up a discussion about affordances and constraints between Word and something like Google Docs (or its imitators and alternatives) can be a starting point for the assumptions that our word processing tools bring to our work.
To illustrate open source vs. proprietary software, one easy choice is to look at LibreOffice, OpenOffice or WPS Office. Each is a clone of sorts and, beyond being shocked to find that these “free” tools exist, students can also be shocked to find that they work pretty darn well.
An excellent site but also, for students, an instructive site that will beg the question of their assumptions. Even if they aren't sold on plain text tools and they would prefer to have more buttons and stick with their .pages and .docx files, it's a great and practical starting point for critical thinking around text.
One of the nice things that the contrast with plaintext does is to help students think about big questions (“What is a text?”) and practical questions at the same time (i.e. are our tools determined by our peers and our communities? Are word processing tools a matter of identity?)
To illustrate more about data formats, text editors provide a good point of contrast. Sublime text or atom (or any coding editor) raises questions of why it is that Word stores data in the format it does. (Or, notepad in windows, etc— there's always some form of simple text editor to play with.) What's different about a plain .txt file?
As so much use is made nowadays of markdown, tools like typora or hedgedoc or, frankly, a whole bunch of other tools for other purposes (Trilium notes, github, etc.) are both an easy way to introduce markup languages and an illustrative lesson in standards (i.e. because markdown suffers from a variety of flavors -cf. asciidoc, markua).
Markdown also makes for a handy lesson in the difficulties of encoding form along with content, in issues of data classification and separation generally. HTML or coding formats like JSON are illustrative of this as well.
- And we haven't even gotten to modal text editors and questions of modeless UI. In addition to, potentially, some frustration, modal text editing tends to blow students' minds, particularly if they have little experience of coding. Vim (or NeoVim) or kakoune will feel foreign but also, perhaps, revealing, of their assumptions about what it means to type. (For vim, a good starting point, before getting to the editor itself, is https://vim-adventures.com/.) How do these kinds of text tools compare not just with something graphical like MS Word but even with other text-based programs like nano? (Note that Vim and emacs can both easily be installed in Windows and Mac versions. There is also a handy way to explore vim mode in many programs, e.g. hedgedoc).
One easy way to explore these different platforms, their similarities and differences, is to try copying first (rather than composition). See what it's like to put a favorite poem or section of a book into that text editor or word processor. Does it change where you put your attention as you write? How much does it matter that something is hard (at first) or not?
(One last sidebar: tools like scrivener or manuskript, or other platforms for specific kinds of writing are another way to explore this question of medium. So too blogging platforms are yet another way.)
- Text editors (vs. word processors) provide perhaps the easiest way into learning a bit about the history of computing. Check out some retro computing online, for example at winworld for old windows programs. For the legendary wordstar, for example: https://winworldpc.com/product/wordstar/7
Or try out some emulators for old tech, e.g. https://jamesfriend.com.au/pce-js/ for the classic Mac.
(Students may well already have a point of reference if they've ever used or come across retro game console emulators).
- Similarly, if you have a bit of retrotech lying around, like say, a typewriter, it can also be illustrative (and fun!) to let students compare what it is like to work through that mechanical technology. Different keyboards too — small, big, mechanical — all help illustrate the question. What difference does it make what tools we use for writing?
History and Ethics
There's an ethics and philosophy lesson here. Why does Microsoft charge for its software in the way that it does? What does it mean to license rather than own software? What's at stake in the open or libre software movement by contrast?
Finally, there's a history lesson in all of this. Why is it that MS Word is the default? Why is it that these other tools exist in the first place? (Vim and emacs provide a history of early computing in miniature perhaps.)
MS Word and its siblings (Powerpoint, etc.) dominate nowadays. Students are rarely aware of alternatives and are often locked in not by choice, but simply because it is taken for granted that these are the tools they will use to complete assignments or do presentations or the like.
There is, in the end, a lesson about choice and volition in this as well. Do you choose to use this tool because it is the right tool for what you need to do? Or do you use it for other reasons, often unseen and invisible?
All from the humble, ubiquitous word processor.