Road to the Information Superhighway

by @jehiah on 2004-09-16 14:16
Filed under: All, Articles

There is a lot of talk about the information superhighway these days. Everyone seems to be getting on it, and needless to say, there are many on ramps, off ramps, signs, billboards, construction and of course traffic. Most of the cars speeding by are all self-taught drivers, but there are guided instructional tours as well. The guided tour to learning how to drive which I am talking about is classroom setting; specifically the class under the title Internet Technology or CMST 385 at UMUC.

Like all guided tours, this one is designed to help you get driving while avoiding all the traffic, construction and distractions. One could think of it as drivers-ed for the information superhighway, focused specifically on the technology of driving more so than driving every day. There is a certain benefit to this drivers-ed approach to learning technology, especially with regard to Internet technology. It is always easier to learn on an empty road, without distractions.

Despite the ease of learning in drivers-ed, there is a disturbing trend to teach people to drive on old dirt roads, and with model T's when they need to know how to drive mazdas 6's and jetta's on pavement (and highways at that) in the real world. It is easy to forget that the pavement is aging, the roads are changing, and what may have been new yesterday may no longer carry the traffic of today. In fact when technology is involved old roads are often growing grass between the cracks due to un-use. This aging process is expected as new technology replaces old technology, but are classes keeping up with it?

While some roads of information technology are changing slowly most are not, and worse than the roads, the cars are changing faster and perhaps more subtly. The technology road change from ipv4 to ipv6 is a slow one and not concerning, but the change from the vehicle of font tags to using style sheets is happening faster and should be noted. Even faster is the changing of the browser vehicle from IE to Firefox. These changes are important to note when they are not reflected in the classroom because that is where tomorrow's workers are learning yesterday's technology instead of tomorrow's workers learning tomorrow's (or even today's) technology.

The changes that are most concerning are not even big things... and would be easy to change, which is exactly why it is concerning. We already highlighted that there is a change in web development from using font tags and such for inline style specifications to using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for site wide style specification. The difference in the class isn't big, as teaching one verse the other shouldn't be any different (some could easily argue that CSS is easier but that is beside the point). CSS is growing in usage in the corporate environment. Web-coordinators and Web-developers are increasingly being required to comply with corporate site wide site specifications and those will almost always include using a predefined style sheet, or developing a site wide style sheet.

Internet Explorer is loosing market share to other browsers like Firefox in the general market (which is a big deal, when you talk about the install base of Internet Explorer), but the trend is almost complete among web developers (and the tech savvy) which is who we are really talking about. When teaching someone to be tech savvy it makes little difference which you teach as far as teaching goes (again many could argue that standards compliance, tabbed browsing, source code coloring, javascript console, etc make Firefox easier to teach.. but it is certainly not any worse), so why is Internet Explorer still used in a web development class?

You can pick up on these signs in many areas of a class. It is useful to teach how to transfer files between your local computer and a remote computer; nearly every website designer will need these skills. But again the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) vehicle is fading from use. You can't even find a good FTP application with a graphical interface for windows (why does one not come with windows anyway?) anymore. Secure Copy (SCP) and Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP)is again becoming the standard for transferring files replacing their FTP cousin. Clients like winSCP are freely available for windows, and it is part of the SSH protocol, so you can find and use it on almost any platform. Again many could argue it is easy or easier to use than FTP, but not only is it not taught in class, or even mentioned, it is ignored despite the fact that current system configurations would allow for it to be used.

Similarly to FTP where it still works, telnet is used in the class. While I give some credit for using SSH in the class along with telnet, though I believe it to be purely accidental as it was the default setting for Tera Term Pro (it was after all referred to as telnet). Most companies have replaced telnet with SSH for security reasons. SSH is not really that different from a user interface, but alas telnet is taught.

The school has a chance, hope is not lost yet, but they days are passing when that will be true. It is disheartening knowing that my peers are only learning half of what they need to get out of school and make it in the real world. They are learning the right things, but in all the wrong ways.

There are signs along the way, which teachers and schools need to learn to pick up on. With the pace of technology and innovation what it is, any technology course which goes unchanged in content for more than two consecutive semesters has almost certainly missed some changes. When the resources of a class do not change, students are missing on the changes in the real world. The Internet is an awesome resource, and has replaced many in-print publications and news materials. Now that books and references are being published online, schools should look to move with that change and use that change and be more in favor of giving students online resources instead of required text-books.

Schools and teachers especially should look at what companies and experts are doing in the respective fields. When companies start allowing employees to contribute to and use free software, and to add enhancements to those, schools should take notes. This could be modeled by teaching students the benefits of open sourcing software, and by teaching them how to contribute small features to an already existing software package instead of the endless dummy card-game programs written in classes. Projects could be turned into a way of giving benefits to, and enhancing the technology for all.


This article was written by Jehiah Czebotar on 9/14/2004. Thanks to Peter Guerra and Tamarah Czebotar for dealing with rough drafts of this.

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