Monday, March 05, 2007

Practicality vs Socal Responsibility

A while back, I wrote something about whether it really mattered if I recycled or took public transportation or voted a certain way. My question was, does it really make a difference? And if it seems like it doesn't make a difference, and if, from a practical standpoint, it's onerous for me to recycle/ride the bus/whatever, then maybe I shouldn't do said thing (or at least I shouldn't worry about it). Readers said (and I wish I could find the post) that small things can make a big difference and that I should keep recycling/walking/doing small good things because I do have an effect and besides, it's the right thing to do.

In a meeting today, this very tension between the practicality (or more correctly, perhaps, the easiness) of doing something and the social responsibility of doing something different came into play. One might think that in my line of work, this doesn't happen very often. Education is an admirable pursuit, after all. But, there are still people involved and it's still in some ways a business and so, conflicts arise. The question at hand was whether students and faculty would consider using a different tool if they found out that the company that makes the tool were doing something they found to be socially or morally irresponsible. Interestingly, most of the students and faculty said they'd rather not change, that changing depended on what the company was doing. Semi-unethical business practices were okay, but using child labor was not. For them, there was a pretty high threshold before they'd be convinced that change was necessary. Change for them was more problematic than a company's business practices.

In my mind, they were being practical. Changing their practices would be time-consuming. They might have to learn how to use something new, and it might not be easy to learn. They may, in fact, lose some functionality (even if they gain new functionality). They were used to this tool, even if it wasn't perfect. This is the tension that occurs all the time in lots of ways for many people. For me, it's the reliance on a car and having a car that doesn't get the greatest gas mileage. It would be really difficult for me to change that. I'd have to move or buy a hybrid car or extend my commute to triple the time by taking the bus. All of those options are difficult from a practical standpoint, for financial or other reasons. But . . . if using less gas became a huge important issue for me, then I'd probably find a way to make one of those options work. For the faculty and students, it's the reliance on software that they are comfortable with and that "everyone else uses."

In my ideal educational software environment, we'd use only open source software. (And let's forget for the moment that I'm not using open source software right this second. I could. I just didn't.) Why? Because I think education is too important a venture to leave up to corporations who don't understand anything about education. Let's use Microsoft products for a moment. They were created for an office environment. Yeah, we use Word and Excel in the education environment, too. But do you think developers are sitting around thinking about how to make those products better for their educational users? Um, no. Not that Open Office is either, but someone could make something. Maybe someone could develop a tool that helps students learn how to do citations correctly as they're typing papers. The thing is, it's open! You could do it if you wanted to.

I think of an academic environment as a place where ideas are shared, not where they're sequestered away. I think of it as a place where people work together in order to learn. A college or university provides opportunities for those both physically and virtually. The software we use should espouse those principles and should make it easier (not harder) for students to collaborate, for faculty to work with each other and their students, for everyone to share resources, to communicate, and to learn. I don't want to see education as yet another market to be leveraged. Surely, we rise above capitalism a little even if we can't escape it entirely.

In the 80s, when I was in college, we protested in order to get the college to divest from South Africa. Shouldn't we consider all our purchases as carefully as we might consider our investments? Maybe this isn't a big enough issue to protest over, but certainly, it's worth having a debate. For myself, I know I could be convinced that I should make the gas issue more important, important enough for me to change. And changing software is a lot easier than moving.

Bonus points if you have any idea what software I might be talking about here (and then I'll put it in the label).