Critical Thinking About Word and .doc
Many of us teach cultural analysis and critical thinking in our writing classes. Our first year readers are full of cultural commentary, and we use these texts to teach our students to question the status quo and understand more deeply the implications of the choices they make in this consumer culture.
Do writing teachers do the same when they tell students to submit their documents as .doc files or tell them they need to buy Word from the campus store? Have teachers questioned the assumptions behind their personal use of MS Word?
Writing teachers have an obligation to explore the assumptions regarding the one tool we can't do without in the teaching of writing, the word processor. The following will explore some of the common reasons I believe people continue to use and promote MS Office and its file formats, and I will challenge some of the assumptions behind those reasons and the consequences.
Everyone Uses .doc Format
I always beware of a lemming-based argument, but there is no doubt that .doc and MS Office are the most widely used applications by education, the corporate world, professional organizations, and home users. The assumption is that using the .doc file format makes it easy to share files and is the only alternative. That is certainly no longer the case if teachers adopt and begin using ODF and ODF support continues to develop.
But has it been true before now? Any Mac users can tell you they have long had problems sharing .doc files produced with MS Office from PC to Mac. Even today, Office 2007's new file format produces a Mac-incompatible word processing file.
While file format incompatibility may be more visible to Mac users, it has been a problem in Windows as well. There are two reasons for this file format incompatibility which are most likely intentional marketing strategies by MS.
When a new version of Office is released and it produces files that are not compatible with other versions of MS Office, this pushes everyone to purchase and upgrade to the latest version. In an institutional or corporate environment, once new computers are purchased with the upgrade, all existing computers then need to purchase an upgrade, too, to maintain file compatibility. Eventually, home users are forced to upgrade their software, even though they do only minimal word processing, since many people they are sharing .doc documents with are creating those files in the workplace. The financial cost to education and the rest of our society is high, even though we might not need the new features that the latest--and sometimes not so greatest--MS Word version has to offer.
Barrier to Competitors
Microsoft has a known history of using file format incompatibility to force competitors from the market. During the browser wars, MS regularly released versions of IE which had numerous HTML compatibility issues with Netscape. We all know what happened to Netscape. It is only more recently since Firefox has become popular and web designers have determined to design for the best open standards compliant browsers that MS has begun to stop this practice.
If we think of the file issues that Mac users have faced, imagine how that impacts Windows market share. When .doc is the dominant format in the workplace and there are issues with its support in Mac OS X, institutions are less likely to consider switching to Apple products.
When it comes to office productivity, how many people have abandoned WordPerfect or AppleWorks for MS Office because of file compatibility issues? There are too many examples to ignore the fact that when we support .doc and MS's control of a file format, we create an environment that gives MS a strong competitive edge.
I Like the Features in MS Office
One comment I often here from MS Office users who have evaluated other office productivity tools (such as OpenOffice) is that " I like the features in MS Office better."
I would caution teachers to consider two factors that should inform that opinion:
- Different software has different features. Are teachers evaluating alternatives in depth? Alternative office productivity software may not have all of the features Word has, but may have features that Word does not.
- Learned literacies. Without in depth evaluation of a new application, teachers may be succumbing to a learned literacy bias. We develop literacies for specific ways in which a software application works. Quite often, an alternative application may work as well once we get through the learning curve. Moreover, learning to work with different applications is itself an information/digital literacy skill. One of the main goals of education is to challenge students to develop new literacies. Since writing teachers are the academic experts on word processing, should teachers challenge themselves in the same way?
Monopolies Don't Have to Innovate
If better features are important, then continuing to support MS's monopoly could easily be a bad choice. How many times have you noticed only little difference between Word versions? Innovation typically occurs best in a competitive market. Since MS can depend on file format incompatibility to force consumers to upgrade, there is less incentive to build new, improved products.
For instance, MS originally had no plans to include tabbed browsing, a favorite of Firefox users, in IE 7. If it weren't for Firefox's steadily increasing market share, it would not be available. It's also reasonable to assume that many of the new Mac-like features in Vista are there because Mac is a competitor.
What Can I Do?
I doubt teachers can immediately switch from .doc to ODF, and many teachers will likely continue using Word. But ten years ago, we successfully taught writing with word processing software. There are applications today other than Word with a wider range of features than what was available then. Weigh the pedagogical benefits of using Word now against how you taught writing then and the problems with using Word outlined here and others you can think of. Make an informed decision. Be willing to inform your students about the implications of using Word and .doc.
If you decide to continue using Word, understand that people may choose not to use .doc for very good reasons. Be willing to install the ODF to MS Word file translator when working with friends and colleagues.
At the very least, don't tell students who have WordPerfect or MS Works on their computer that they need Word to create good .doc files in first year writing classes. Suggest that they download and install OpenOffice for free. Ask your institutions to offer OpenOffice in the labs so students can experiment with it and see that it is a viable alternative to Word.