Link rot, deprecation, squatters, and hackers: the trouble with books on CALL

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Link rot can be a major issue when writing about web-based resources

I’ve just finished reading the excellent Language Learning with Technology by Graham Stanley. It’s packed full of useful ideas for how best to integrate technology with the ESL classroom, and I highly recommend it.

However, having eagerly loaded up almost all the links in the book, I encountered several problems, which are well-known to anyone who’s ever surfed the web. I should acknowledge here that these problems apply equally to all publications relating to web-based technology, including my own.

Link rot

The trouble with books is that their text is unapologetically static. Once a book is published, once the ink is dry on the dead cellulose wood fibers, it can’t be changed. At least, not until a new edition is released.

Conversely, the web is unpredictably dynamic. URLs which exist on Monday may completely disappear by Friday, or take us somewhere we never intended or expected to go. Link rot is defined by Wikipedia as:

the process by which hyperlinks on individual websites or the Internet in general point to web pages, servers or other resources that have become permanently unavailable

Link rot is a major issue when writing anything about web-based technology. This problem exists not just in relation to dead tree publications, but also with web-based ones, although the latter can be more easily updated.

Link rot is the main reason why it’s inadvisable, to say the very least, to publish anything that relies mainly on the availability and predictability of web resources. It’s one of the reasons why search engines like Google eventually won out against web directories like Yahoo! The web is in constant flux, and trying to write down, describe, or analyze any website, excluding perhaps the web’s most permanent destinations, is an exercise in futility.

Deprecation

No, I’m not talking about British people’s infuriating refusal to acknowledge compliments. I’m talking about what TechTarget defines as the following:

In IT, deprecation means that although something is available or allowed, it is not recommended or that, in the case where something must be used, to say it is deprecated means that its failings are recognized

Perhaps the most infamous example of a deprecated web-based technology in recent years has been Adobe Flash. Once the only way for webmasters to easily deploy games, videos, audio, and a whole host of other snazzy features on their sites, Flash is now regarded with disdain by surfers, web browsers, and tech giants alike.

Almost anyone who has ever used a smartphone or a tablet can tell you: Flash just doesn’t work on mobile. Unfortunately, the appeal of Flash-based apps hasn’t faded as quickly as Apple would have liked. This means that teachers who have recently furbished their classes with a set of iDevices have to be extra careful about which web-based resources they prescribe or recommend, and must be prepared for disappointment when they see the old familiar message: This page requires Macromedia Flash Player to run correctly.

Squatters and Hackers

If squatters are the opportunistic freeloaders who jump into your house and claim it for themselves the minute you vacate it, hackers are the guys who sneak in through the hidden back entrance, change the locks, and stick their name on your front door just to prove a point.

Both hackers and squatters are a major issue in relation to web-based resources. The domain of my name, paulraine.com, is a good example of domain squatting. Back in 2006, I owned it, but later let the registration slip. Now it is “parked”, and if I ever want to use it again, I will probably have to pay the current owner an exorbitant sum to do so. This happens a lot with domains that have at one point been registered. If the owner fails to renew, they get scooped up by internet squatters, and used to advertise tenuously related sites and services. This can happen at any time, and we must be careful that sites we recommend to colleagues or students haven’t been surreptitiously converted into money-making portals.

If your domain hasn’t been taken over by squatters, it may still have been invaded by hackers, which seems to be the unfortunate case with the official companion site to Language Learning with Technology (languagelearningtechnology.com), which, as of November 2016, seems to have be “pwned” by a certain “gunz_berry”:

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-10-19-15-pm

Bear in mind this is a book that was published only three years ago, in 2013. Who knows how long the companion site has been displaying the “Hacked by gunz_berry” message. Unfortunately, many of the ideas and suggestions in the book refer to the companion site, so it’s a real shame that it’s been compromised. I hope that Cambridge University Press can get it back up and running again soon (I’ve already tweeted the author to let him know the site is down).

Solutions

Ultimately, there’s not a lot ed-tech authors can do about many of these problems. To avoid link rot, it’s best to go with sites that have been around for at least a couple of years, but even then, they can disappear suddenly and without warning.

We should also be careful not to endorse deprecated technologies, but the pace of technological progress is so fast, that even newer innovations are becoming deprecated very quickly.

As for squatters and hackers, we can only try to ensure that our security arrangements are up-to-date, and we remember to pay our domain renewal fees.

Conclusion

Perhaps a non-technical solution is the best to these technical challenges, and Graham Stanley manages it quite well: focus on types of technology rather than specific instances; focus on ESL activities rather that ESL sites; and give alternatives and variations for every suggestion, to ensure that ideas can still be applied even if the technology itself fails in certain instances.

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