Science Magazine

The Industry Standard Myth

Posted on the 18 January 2021 by Betchaboy @betchaboy

So many times in schools I've heard people defend their choice of software for students by trotting out the old "industry standard" argument. They reason that schools should have their students using certain pieces of software because "it's what the industry uses".

Aside from the fact that most of the people making these claims are often career teachers who have never worked in an industry outside of education, they often also neglect to condider that not all industries are the same. There is often a bizarre kind of expectation that all students will end up working in the finance/legal world of a bank or a lawyer's office, or in a narrowly defined "creative industry", both places where, yes it's true, you will sometimes find an incumbent piece of software that has been in use there since God was a boy.

If I may tell a couple of stories to make a point...

Story 1

When I was still teaching (computing subjects) one of the tasks I would get my kids to do was to create an instruction manual (either as a written manual or a series of screencasts) for a piece of software they had never seen before, that was not the incumbent tool, in different categories. So for example, for Word Processing they could choose anything other than Microsoft Word (which was our school's standard WP tool at the time). So they got to look at things like Google Docs, Open Office Writer, Zoho Writer, Libre Writer, AbiWord, Scrivener, and so on.

They were usually quite shocked at

  • the number of alternatives available
  • how good some of them were
  • how much overlap existed between them all
  • that what they were really doing was not necessarily "Word", but "word processing"

Their usual takeaway was that the only reason most of them were using Word was that it was what they were used to, and that when they started to look around, there were lots of good alternatives.

Turns out that, for the most part, a word processor is just a word processor, a spreadsheet is just a spreadsheet, a video editor is just a video editor, and so on. It's their points of difference that make them interesting, but if you've never tried anything else then you won't know what those difference are.

Story 2

When my son was in high school he got a new computer (MacBook Air). Thinking that his father was some magical supply of free software, he asked me to install MS Office on it. I said I did not have a licence for it, that I wasn't about to buy one, and that I did not support him (or me) pirating software. I suggested he install Open Office on it, which he did, and after a week of complaining that it wasn't Word, he decided he actually liked it better, and still has Open Office on his computer to this day (although he usually uses Google Docs now)

Story 3

A few years ago I was asked to collaborate on writing a book with someone, although I ended up doing the bulk of the writing and editing. It didn't take long to realise that Microsoft Word was quite ill-suited for writing very long, dynamic documents like a book, so I started hunting around to see what other options might be available. I stumbled across Scrivener, an amazing writing tool which takes a completely different approach to long form writing. It was quite surprising to realise that the commonly accepted "industry standard" tool may not always be the best tool.

My point is that we often just use what we get used to, regardless of whether it's actually the "best" tool for the job or not. If we never question the status quo, nothing ever changes. (Actually things change all the time, but once we get wrapped up in using a certain tool, if we never look sideways we never notice things changing around us.)

The "industry standard" argument is a spurious one. It makes sense for some kids, at some ages, doing some kinds of work to use the software that "the industry" is using at the moment. But for the majority of kids, at most ages, for the majority of the time, it's a complete furphy, because really, who knows what "the industry" will be using in 5 or 10 years time.

It's better to be adaptable, than perfectly prepared for a world that may no longer exist. If I was in industry I'd rather employ someone who knew how to learn and adapt to ANY piece of software, rather than to be an expert in something we no longer use.

The Industry Standard Myth
The Industry Standard Myth by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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