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Get your motor runnin’…Head out on the [mobile] highway…

Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-RiderWhen I first read the title of John Daigle’s Adobe Day presentation, “Enjoying a Smooth Ride on the Mobile Documentation Highway,” guitar riffs by Steppenwolf echoed in my mind thinking of the song, “Born to Be Wild” and scenes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding down the information highway. OK, maybe not the information highway, but with mobile, it’s an open road right now that is waiting to be explored.

While I hadn’t heard John speak before, I was familiar with his “rock star” status due to social media–mostly through Twitter (you can find him as @hypertexas)–in my e-learning and m-learning forums.  It turns out that John is a big RoboHelp and Captivate expert, so being tied into the mobile highway scene makes sense!

John Daigle

The premise of John’s talk was that there are shifts and trends in mobile, and we need to look at organizations as early adopters, figure out the mobile landscape, and look at how user assistance is used on mobile as compared to how reference documentation is used generally. He pointed out that writing and designing for a mobile audience is very different from traditional methods (I agree!), and that he would be offering some hints on how to approach technical communications for mobile.

John pointed out that fellow speaker, panelist Joe Welinske, created the “bible” for Windows Help,  and now has created the “bible” for mobile apps, referring to Joe’s book, Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps, which talks about the “screen wars” between the smartphones and tablets of various size. These various sizes produce a challenge for technical communicators. John went on to point out that e-readers, such as Kindle and Nook, are still alive and well and doing well as compared to other tablets such as iPads and Samsung Galaxy Tabs.  The initial conversion of print text to Kindle ePubs was a big change in electronic documentation. He also stated that at this stage of the game, Windows Surface and Windows Phone are a little late in the game, but they are catching up rapidly.

Following some of the comments of keynote speaker, Charles Corfield (the post on that talk is forthcoming!), John explained that other products including voice-activated devices, such as those found in some cars these days, are becoming more prolific. Google Glass, which is getting a lot of press right now, is a new game changer in mobile devices, and time will tell what kind of impact it will have.

John told us that as of February 2013, there were one billion smartphones and 150 million tablets worldwide–proof that mobile is becoming more widespread! Corporations are even getting more involved in mobile by buying mobile devices for employees, but many companies are also allowing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Companies are starting to embrace the idea of BYOD a little more lately.

Finance and healthcare industries are quickly adopting mobile delivery of information because of the portability of the devices. Mobile devices are being used more in industry and shop floors because they allow users access anytime, anywhere. John informed us that many of the same technical communications skills and experiences needed to write standard information apply to mobile. QR codes are gaining popularity as a  part of the movement of accessing documentation through mobile. John quoted Jakob Nielsen saying, “Killing time is the killer app of mobile.” With that in mind, John advised that technical communicators should learn to use more economic words for mobile, such as  “extra” instead of “additional.”

John also quoted John Caroll, who said, “Minimize the extent to which the systems and the information get in the way of what the user’s really interested in.” Progressive disclosure is key in writing for mobile. It allows one to gain information by revealing what’s needed when it’s needed. Ways to show this in mobile interfaces could be drop-down navigation or overlays. This allows a user to not leave the page, but he or she can still get to information quickly. In this sense, mobile can go right to the source or the heart of information needed.

So the question is, are huge documents (such as what’s in those big company binders) going mobile too? The answer is that technical writers can’t just dump desktop layouts and information onto mobile. This is where technical communicators need to work with developers to do what they do best–help “champion the end users.”

Going mobile is about flattening navigation–but not going button crazy, and getting back to context sensitive help. Technical communicators need to tap into social media to keep content current and accurate, thus becoming curators of user generated content.

It helps to prototype mobile layouts with rapid wire-framing tools, like Balsamic Mock-ups as a popular example. There are many specific tools on the market that are available to assist the developer in facilitate context-sensitive help.

However, there are several design controversies involving the need to upgrade browsers, progressive enhancement, adaptive design and responsive design. Some argue that responsive design is not the best because it makes a device’s CPU works harder, thus it becomes a virtual memory hog when resizing images as needed. Yet, responsive web design can adapt layouts to the appropriate viewing environment with fluid, proportion-based grids.

John suggested using the site, , to help test how compatible your site is with mobile interfaces. He also pointed out that help-authoring tools can do much of the work with single source layout concepts, as different settings in authoring tools can help determine how to make user outputs work properly. Another such tool he recommended was Adobe Edge, as it helps writers to preview and inspect web designs on mobile devices directly ON the devices. For additional tools and information, John pointed us to his website, .

I particularly enjoyed John’s talk, as I’ve been following many of his posts on Twitter for more than a year now. He’s very good at explaining the power of mobile in technical communication, and I think John put this perspective well into view for the Adobe Day attendees.  As many know, I’m a big believer in the power of mobile, and the mind-set for writing for mobile isn’t that difficult if you understand the basics. So, it’s good that Adobe continues to include information about technical communications in the mobile world, as that’s where a lot of change is coming in the future. Adobe made a good choice when asking John Daigle to present information about mobile documentation.

John, if you are reading this, please feel free to add any comments or corrections in the comments! 🙂

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What are you so afraid of?

It seems to me that lately there have been a lot of articles posted around the Web about higher education being afraid of using technology.  I suppose that since I received my recent Master’s degree entirely online from an accredited university, I’m somewhat oblivious to that fact, but I can see why that would be thought, based on the various arguments made.

Bringing technology into the classroom, let alone have distance learning via e-learning or even m-learning, is still a bit of a foreign thing even now, despite the fact that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were working on getting computers into classrooms as much as 30 years ago. (Time flies!).  Part of the problem is that there are many educators who are a little intimidated by technology. Yes, computers–as just mentioned–have been available in the classroom for decades in one form or another, but not everyone has learned to take advantage of that.  Why?

One of the obvious reasons is cost.  Computers–whether desktops, laptops, tablets, or even smart devices (like an iPod touch, NintendoDS, etc.), are not cheap. Trust me–we have at least one of each of those types of devices in my house, and I know how much we spent to have them.  Even with the movement to promote BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), not everyone can afford to have the latest and greatest gadget. Technology, these days, evolves very quickly, so it’s hard to keep up with the latest devices and tools. (This is why I’m always happy to hear of endeavors made to try to supply simple computing devices that are made cheaply to supply to children in far flung places in Africa, South America and Asia where such resources are scarce.)

Even so, I think the reason that many in higher ed and other educational levels don’t use more technology to teach is basically because they don’t know how.  I’ll give you an example.

My father was the first one to introduce me to computers a little bit more than 30 years ago when I was a kid. The Apple II had come around, and my father–a lifelong educator–found himself trying to support a family with four kids (me being the oldest of them) and having a very difficult time finding a job due to budget cuts happening left and right.  He found computers interesting, and realized that if computers were to become prolific, then maybe he could segueway his teaching skills into teaching adults how to use VisiCalc and basic word processing programs in business. In other words, he would move into the training and development business. But once he got a job back in the traditional educational field, while he did stay involved in computers, and even got to a point where he was not only a curriculum administrator but teaching night courses as well–he’d teach computing for a while, but it was never major advances. To this day, he’ll call up either me up or talk to my developer husband if he has computer issues. I don’t think other than teaching computing for a short time, that he really ever used technology in the classroom much. Sure, “Oregon Trail” was used, and maybe “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?“, but beyond that, even when he was officially retired and teaching history courses at the local community college, beyond the use of email, I don’t know that he necessarily used technology for those courses.  History classes can be very dry subjects (I ought to know, being a history major as an undergrad), but so much history is available online to make it come alive–with video and images alone.

Even in my own online grad courses, I could see where the staff knew things to a point, but then some would show their limitations of what they knew of the outside world and what tools were available to them, and this was a group that was generally more willing to use technology as well. One professor posted all the coursework on Moodle in one folder instead of using the features to the fullest to disseminate information. He may as well just have photocopied everything, stuck it in a manila folder, and handed the materials out willy-nilly instead. I see these as hugely missed opportunities for both my dad and this professor.

My taekwondo teacher taught me something years ago, which I know has been repeated elsewhere: the best way to learn is to teach.  From my own experience, this is not only true in taekwondo, but also for just about anything else in the rest of the world. Teachers–whether they be training specialists at a company, or preschool teachers, or anyone else in the educational field in between–need to continue to learn and grow themselves in order to be effective teachers, especially in this day and age. Technology is a lot less scary and more intuitive than it was 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago, and people forget that very quickly.  If teachers are expected to help turn out students who can contribute towards future growth, how can they do that if they don’t keep up? Yes, there are some older tried-and-true methods that still work and will always work.  But to create a future where everyone from the littlest preschooler to the adult learner contributes in a way that pulls us all forward–teachers need to keep up.

Mobile learning provides a fantastic and easy opportunity to do this, no matter what subject a teacher teaches, or what level. Tablets and smartphones are more prolific these days than even desktops or laptops, so whether a school district provides those tools, or a student brings it from home, it’s a portal to a world of opportunity. The use of whiteboards in the classroom make a huge difference–I know I remember hearing that my son enjoyed and seemed to respond better in classes if whiteboards were used.  As it’s been mentioned many times before, education is undergoing a bit of a revolution, because 19th century ways of teaching aren’t working well in the 21st century.  Life and business are conducted very differently and on a grander global scale than even 100 years ago, or even 10-15 years ago.  Social media and Web 2.0 tools are changing how we communicate and work with each other, especially in real-time.  And yet, having these tools can enable all of us as students of the worlds to learn more.  I guess I don’t know why some are so afraid of trying out the many technologies or applications out there that can work to advance our common knowledge.

You see, in my head, I can imagine how all these different subjects can use mobile technology or other e-learning tools.  You have a Social Studies class? How about asking students to find online newspapers to look at the world in other countries? Or using online libraries or resources to find information? What about doing a short project about looking up records on to learn about World history and how their families may have come to this country? Science–so many scientific journals out there to access. English language and grammar? Many blogs and websites covering those topics, as well as many works of literature have been converted into videos or movies. Math? Check out Khan Academy or similar sites, and see if a flipped classroom curriculum works more. Physical education? Plenty of websites about sports, health, fitness out there. Foreign languages? Watch Japanese TV, Mexican soap operas or Italian news on YouTube. Google, Bing and other search sites are your friend as well as your students’ friend.

There is one last resource for teachers of higher ed or other educational institutions to learn more, and it harkens back to my taekwondo instructor’s words. Learn from your students. They are usually more up to date on what’s going on with all the devices. Why not ask them for suggestions, or learn how to use tools from them? Recently, I remember showing a professor of mine how to use hashtags on Twitter to start getting more involved in topics that she was interested in researching and find other Twitter users that shared common interests on that outlet. While she understood the concepts behind Twitter, she didn’t know that one could search by hashtags within Twitter, and so she learned how to use a social media tool that she was familiar with in a different way. I was glad that I was able to show that to her, and I’m sure going forward that it’s something she may pass along to her other students and colleagues as well.

Also, don’t be afraid of asking colleagues who are tech savvy as well. If they are enthusiastic about using technology in the classroom, they are usually more willing to share those ideas with someone else who shares that enthusiasm.

In the end, we can all benefit from each other in helping each other learn technology, but educators need to take special attention because in helping themselves learn about technology and using technology, they will help their students as well.

So, what are you so afraid of? Start looking in the App Store, You Tube and Google, and see what you can find. You might be surprised. Every little bit of knowledge helps to advance you and your students.

Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below.

And if there are any teachers (on any level) that would like some extra help…let me know.