Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Microsoft Curriculum Narrative

Of course, having bloviated to the tune of 2000+ words about Apple and narrative, I can’t avoid thinking about Microsoft and narrative. Microsoft’s narratives are particularly annoying to me right now because I’m spending a lot of time with my nose in Microsoft Press books and grinding through practice tests for Microsoft certifications. Microsoft has narrative problems in these books.

The main thing is that reading the books feels like reading a bad help file on the computer: the help isn’t helpful. It doesn’t tell a story well - and, crucially, it doesn’t tell you what matters. In a reference work, this would be halfway forgivable, but I’m reading tutorial works, books that are intended to take you from near-zero to competence with a given Microsoft product, and they’re falling down on that. They are basically giant for-each loops that go through most of the features of the product. They take a stance that’s both egotistical and careless - that everything is important.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! If you’ve ever gotten emails from someone who puts URGENT in the subject line of everything that they send you, you already have experienced how this is wrong. Good narrative requires that important things look important, and that there be a clear spectrum of importance. You don’t need to say that “it’s all important.” When someone picks up the book, they are implicitly assuming that everything in it is important or you wouldn’t have printed it. They are counting on you, the writer and publisher and editor, to make sure that everything past the threshold of “important enough to be in the book” is spread out into an easily visible sub-spectrum of importance.

It’s even more obnoxious that things lack this narrative structure when you consider that the books I’m working with are class textbooks with accompanying lab manuals, tests, and review questions. The tests are perfect opportunities to reinforce and remind students of the relative importance of things. But the books are so flat, so determinedly agnostic about what’s important, that the tests and review questions are the only way to tease out information about that hierarchy of importance - and their helpfulness is severely undermined by the way that they contrast with the book. It is an uphill battle to extract a hierarchy of importance from the tests and homework. It also creates a sense that there’s mere memorization to be done and that the tests are loaded with trick questions.

That’s very, very bad. I don’t argue for the tests being artificially easy - but right now the material is artificially hard because it doesn’t clue you in to what’s important. As a result, when I go through practice exams, it feels like they’re asking for trivia. They want me to memorize which tab of which control panel a given setting is in, instead of knowing what that setting does and when I’d need it. They’re also trapped by the need to demonstrate how much you can do with Microsoft products, and so it’s common for them to contrive situations in which various features are necessary. I’m down with that, but it has a very high risk of adding to the sense of “there is no organizing principle going on here.”

Frustratingly, it’s not like Microsoft doesn’t have usage data. They’ve got oodles. They keep a close eye on this stuff - or they should. So it shouldn’t be spectacularly difficult for them to identify good candidates for emphasis. Their tutorial materials, training the people who will run Microsoft-based facilities in the future, need to be clear and pitch a story - a story about what happens when you run Microsoft clients, Microsoft servers, Microsoft infrastructure. I want to give them a chance to tell a compelling story about the features of their product. You’ll use this every day. You’ll use this every week if you’re in such-and-such kind of network, and otherwise never. You’ll use this once every 18 months, and that one time it will save your ass. That kind of lore should be spread around.

Right now, I’m actually pulling for Microsoft when I read these guides. I realize that their products can do some pretty compelling and astonishing things. Yet it still feels like listening to someone with a stammer trying to read the I Have A Dream speech - great content, but the delivery, oy. Microsoft Official Academic Courses should be better than this: they should, even if they have to invent one, impose a narrative onto a collection of facts so that those facts can easily enter and remain in the human brains of sysadmins-in-training. They should reinforce that narrative with tests, labs, and review questions that are all in sync, emphasizing the same hierarchy of importance. Finally, for bonus points, they should tie into an existing body of community lore about how to run an IT infrastructure the Microsoft Way. Microsoft’s company-wide ability to do this kind of thing hasn’t penetrated the Microsoft Official Academic Courses that I’ve read, and I really hope that their later crops are better.