September 2017

Volume 32 Number 9

[Don't Get Me Started]

When Software Sucks

By David S. Platt | Annabelle Rose | September 2017

David S. PlattI've had it with high school, and I’m only halfway through. Specifically, I've had it with high school software. Let me explain.

I'm Dave's daughter. I'm 17 years old and a digital native (see Dave's June 2015 column at msdn.com/magazine/mt147245). I've grown up with technology, so I don't expect to struggle with it. And just like my dad, I get angry when I see bad software, and furious when I'm expected to use it. You should, too.

The people who write software used in high schools don't seem to care much about making it good. And the school doesn't realize that ill-designed software can be a dangerous tool that works against the very things it hopes to support. That's probably because the administration is comprised of [nominal] adults. As digital immigrants, they've always struggled with software, and assume that's natural and necessary. My 10th grade algebra II class illustrates this principle quite well.

If you're not familiar with Pearson, you don't work in education and you should congratulate yourself on both of those accomplishments. You'll probably live a few years longer than the rest of us. Pearson is a publishing company that's now churning out one bad piece of educational software after another.

I'm specifically referring to pearsonrealize.com, which publishes our online math textbook platform. The teacher would assign us problems to complete on the platform itself, where she could grade and return them. It sounds like a great idea, if executed well. Which it's not.

My class hated these online assignments. I spent more time typing in my answers than doing the actual problems. When I got a problem wrong, it was usually because of formatting, not my calculations. Every character must be formatted specifically. For just one example, if you're typing in an ordered pair, the answer must be written as an open parenthesis, number, comma, space, number, close parenthesis. If you forget that space, buddy, your answer is wrong.

This wild goose chase takes a while to figure out. Teachers rarely know how to use the software (that digital native/immigrant thing again), so it's left to the one person that's nosed around a bit and figured out whatever convoluted method the programmers have decided to call "intuitive" to instruct the rest of the class. Usually this is me. It's aggravating to tell 25 different people the same process over and over again. Dave says I should charge for tech support.

To make matters worse, we used iPads in class, and Pearson hasn't optimized its interface for touch-dependent devices. In 2017? Seriously? When you tap the ordered-pair button, the correctly formatted ordered pair comes up, with highlighted blue spaces that look like you should just type your answer in. But that would be too easy. Instead, you have to delete those spaces (not the commas though!), then type your answer in instead. In a tiny box, on an iPad, with your clumsy finger. I wanted to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.

Here's the worst part: The geniuses at Pearson think they get it, that they're doing a great job with all this. They claim: "Pearson Realize™ is our newest learning management system that gives ‘digital natives' the learning experience that they have come to expect".

Baloney. We don't expect badly structured, difficult-to-navigate software, though we encounter it far too often. It certainly isn't what we deserve.

I'm here to learn algebra, not to use your software. I shouldn't have to fight the program in order to do this. It should not take me longer to type in my answer than to calculate the actual problem. As Dave says, it's like doing a tonsillecto-my through the rectum—pointlessly more painful.

I've already fought with my teacher over this point. She thinks the struggle of working with bad software is necessary, a character builder, like hoeing potatoes in the Idaho sun. She wouldn't get far with this attitude in Dave's UX class.

Bad software isn't "good for your character," it's a pain in the ass. There's a difference, and it's an important one. If more of us got mad about it, maybe we could change it.


Annabelle Rose Platt is about to enter 11th grade in Ipswich, Mass. Her world greatly expanded at age 2, when she peeled the tape off her fingers and discovered the numbers 9 and 10. She does not agree with everything her father says.


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