2008-04-20

Lifelong learning - but not for me!

A while ago I was not amused about a few things happening around me. This actually happens quite often, but most times I just try to ignore it. That time however things went a bit beyond that thin red line that should not be crossed and I was not very calm when I wrote an article regarding all that. I have calmed down meanwhile, and as usually I try to see things from their funny side. So I deleted the old article and wrote this new one...

I am not sure if you have heard of "lifelong learning". It is all the rage in Taiwan now - at least officially. The government supports it, because they hope that way they will get wiser citizens. The education industry supports it, because it means more money for them. 終身學習 is the term used in Chinese, and a slightly different, but more sarcastic translation could be "learn until you die". (death by learning?)

Being immersed in the education industry, I find it remarkable how members of this industry, while urging everyone else to "learn" (whatever that means) until their last penny is spent, they themselves refuse to learn even those things they would need to properly do their job, not to mention anything else. Let me give you an example.

Almost every person working in an administrative office in our "organization" demands to have a computer on their desk. (or right under it, to save space and collect more dust) But it is almost impossible to find any user of an administrative computer willing to learn anything related to the use of that computer. This approach has a number of advantages for the user in question:

- Getting something done takes longer, so the person seems very busy while not actually doing a lot.
- A lot of work can be rejected by simply saying "I don't know how to do that." or "That's computer-related work. That's not our responsibility."

So when an office has to key a lot of student informations into the administrative system, they can come and say "Hey, we may be responsible for these student data, but we are using a computer to key these data in, we are keying them into a database on a network, so all of these computer thingies clearly show: This is something the computer centre should do! We need the CC to support us, they should key this in!"

...and their wish was fulfilled... I am not joking here, I was there when that happened and the guy sitting next to me at the CC had to key in all those data. Cunning, isn't it? Do you now understand why it is so important not to learn?

You might think that those users will at least know basic computer usage, so at least their daily work gets done. Right... That's why they file a trouble ticket with the CC, requesting a student helper to be sent over to install "Office", because their computer is missing Word, Excel and Powerpoint. The problem is, all administrative computers got their software installed by copying an image to their harddisk, and that image contained both OpenOffice and Microsoft Office.

So our student helper went over to their office, clicked on "Start - Programs - Microsoft Office" and there they were. "Oh, there they are..." Right, why should you click on "Start" if you want to start using that computer. And how should you know that after only eleven years? Microsoft introduced this menu only in 1995, with Windows 95. If nobody told you, how should you know? But of course you "can" Windows...

Windows... So, supposed you have a computer only used for playing audio and video files, which are usually brought along on flashdisks, what would you have to do to play such a file? Start the computer, plug your flashdisk in, select the action you want, and then doubleclick on your file. Hmm...

How about a computer running Linux? Linux would have the advantage of offering desktops in multiple languages, so people who do not understand Chinese are still able to navigate around and (even more importantly) can read system messages. What steps are necessary here? Pressing the power button, plugging your flashdisk in and then (Gnome will automatically show the contents of your flashdrive) doubleclick on your file.

That's three simple steps, two of them would be necessary on any computer anyway. But would you believe how much energy people are willing to invest into a fight so they don't have to "use" Linux? ("Use" here means the three steps above. This is not an administrative computer, it belongs to an AV lab.) And the reason they give? Well, they don't want to "learn another system". Of course... Learning to click onto an icon is very difficult indeed and takes years of practice...

Now, you may ask if I shouldn't give them the "age bonus", because learning becomes more and more difficult at higher ages. Indeed I would, but... What if the people refusing to plug their flashdisks into a Linux machine are younger than me? What if they are considered "highly educated" and "intelligent"?

My mother (who naturally is even a bit older than me) is in contrast not considered "highly educated". But strangely, she never had trouble using HC CAOS, Amiga Workbench, DOS, Geos, Windows (in various incarnations), Linux (with all kinds of desktops, including fvwm2), OS/2 or now OS X. If she wasn't more than 9000km away, maybe I could ask her to "teach" some icon clicking around here...

But why do I worry, when some Taiwanese do not even need to be able to write Chinese on a computer. Yes, that's right. "I can't write Chinese on a computer. But I want one. And I want a student helper to do all the work." And this too was granted...

So, the next time someone tells me I have to use Zhuyin IME, I will just smile and leave that person standing there. After all, a lot of people around here want other IMEs installed, always claiming "This is the only IME I can use." If you can, so can I.

To be honest, in some way I can understand the "I do not and will not understand this" fellows. When I started administrative work at the CC right when I started teaching at this organization, I knew barely that you needed to tell your computer where to find a DNS server, and I had heard of proxies. But other than that I could only fix the "usual" computer (mostly hardware and Windows) problems.

But I had to learn. Because nobody else around me knew, I had to understand DNS. (That's when I found out how crappy Bind is.) I had to understand proxies, Apache and more. And with every new piece I learned, my work (but unfortunately never my pay) increased. I tried to draw the line at web sites - and "failed". Would you believe that 4000 Taiwanese (some of them with a sheet of paper claiming they are experts on this field) expect one German interpreter to set up a web server and create one (or more) web sites - including content, of course, and that content has to be in Chinese and has of course to be made out of thin air. So one German is expected to write content in Chinese for 4000 Taiwanese who do not quite know how to do this themselves? Yes, I too found that quite interesting at that time...

OK, so because it is text that will be used on the web, people can not write it - because that's a "homepage", not just some regular text, and "I can not homepages." Right. But they should be able to create documents properly, with fields, paragraph styles, perhaps even as a document template. Or not?

At one point, the CC planned to do training "for OpenOffice". We had convinced the people in charge that OpenOffice was good for us, because it was free of cost. I know, I know, there are more costs involved. But what do you expect from people buying bubble jet printers "because they are cheaper"? So we (I) did some text processing training, disguised as "OpenOffice training".

Every office had to send at least one delegate. (order from high above) Some sent a student helper, because their own time was too precious. I had 33 names on the list, 17 showed up the first time. There were five sessions, and the fifth time my audience consisted of: three people, one of them a student helper.

Well, maybe they all knew about all that already? Hmm, then why have I not seen a single document created by any of our offices using a field or styles? Maybe it's because of the weather, or because of the mosquitoes, but maybe it's just because nobody knows how to do it.


Apologies if you expected something constructive or helpful in this article, but I did state in the beginning that this was a rant... OK, feeling a bit better now, time for something constructive again...

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