Standardization or Variety? Where’s the Balance?

Finches A student’s lament: “One professor refuses to accept assignments electronically. Another only accepts assignments electronically. One professor wants me to use Microsoft Word for all my writing assignments. One doesn’t want to see anything with a .doc or .docx extension. One professor thinks that ‘electronic submission’ should translate to ‘send as an email attachment.’ One can’t stand attachments, and wants everything shared with her in Google Documents. One posts everything related to the class in Blackboard. One stays as far away from Blackboard as possible, and uses a combination of WordPress and Engrade. Arrgh!”

One can understand the student’s frustration, but is this lack of standardization necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, having to learn different systems for different instructors can be annoying. And granted, some institutions use an LMS for purposes that go far beyond the classroom. Still, I’d like to suggest that having to learn how to deal with different systems is beneficial for students.

As I see it, it really isn’t significantly different from, for instance, learning how to use different citation styles for different disciplines. All citation styles provide information about a source such that readers will know:

  • who the author(s) of a source is (are)
  • how recent the source is
  • what kind of source it is
  • where to locate the source
  • where to locate the specific portion of the source being cited

They do this in different ways, depending on the needs and standards of the discipline, but all of that information will be there.

Surely the situation of having students use different pieces of software for similar sorts of tasks in different courses is similar. Students who are required to use both Microsoft Word and Google Documents will learn both the similarities and the differences between the two, and what the strengths and weaknesses of each are. I’d submit that this is a good thing, and that learning both will make it easier for them to learn other new software that they may encounter in the future. So if at some point they’re faced with the need to use the word processor in OpenOffice, they won’t be stymied. They may not know exactly where the menu item for creating a header is, but they’ll know that, since they’re dealing with a word processor, such a function more than likely exists—and they’ll look for it. The skills they’ve learned will transfer.

Students learning this sort of adaptability seems to me to be a strong argument against insisting on standardization (though it would certainly be reasonable for an institution to say, “These are the software packages we support; if you use others, you’re on your own.”).

What are your thoughts on this? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by 49024304@N00]

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