MITx i18n fails

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One of my 'pet' topics over more than 20 years has been how to Internationalise (i18n) web sites and services; how it isn't just the spoken language which changes, but also many of the basic assumptions which authors — and readers — make. I have made presentations on the subject to organisations large, small, and multinational.

But failure to do this properly has just reared itself on the 6.002x course I am taking at MITx. Today's messages to students include some responses to feedback about error messages, once of which MITx have responded:

this occurs if you submit non-numeric answers to numeric problems. This most commonly occurs if a comma is used instead of a decimal point, or units are included.

Now two points are raised here, and show the 'English-US' language assumptions that they've made.

Firstly, that in many countries (notably much of Europe outside the UK) the 'decimal point' is written as a comma! Indeed, the course leader's response makes no sense because the comma has not been "used instead" of the decimal point, it is the decimal mark! For a fascinating discussion on this point the Wikipedia article makes a great read.

And where the value is below one, there is also the matter of whether there must be a leading zero (ie "0.56" or just ".56") with the majority of countries using the leading zero, but not the USA.

There is also the matter of including the units or not. Now it is, quite clearly, a long time since I was at school, but I was taught that you never, ever write down a value without including what that value is measured in. Ideally also with the error margin too. This, then, becomes a matter of difference of English comprehension for the students of 6.002x as the questions do, indeed, ask "how many Volts are …", for example, with the understanding by those who wrote the course that this means a numeric-only answer. But that relies on a particular understanding of the construction of the English language. One might also compare it with "I did not have sex with that woman".

There are over 100 thousand students on this course, spread literally all around the world. For many their first language is not English in any form. To demand that they understand the course material in a particularly localised manner is possibly going too far. On the other hand, this course is the first from MITx and very much "by way of an experiment" to find out the issues which arise.
07-Mar-2012 12:35 ·
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