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Content in the Age of Coronavirus

Man watching TV intensely Welcome to day 4-ish of my self-quarantine from the coronavirus pandemic. I say 4-ish because I went out on Sunday, but once I came back, I’ve stayed home every since. I went for a walk with my husband around the neighborhood yesterday for a little bit of fresh air, but now most of the weather is expected to be wet and soggy for most of the next week, so other than a doctor’s appointment that hasn’t been cancelled yet, I plan to stay indoors.

This post was inspired by something that I just watched on Twitter. Normally, I don’t watch Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show much (we’re more Late Show with Stephen Colbert people), but I saw he had posted a “home edition” post, and I was curious. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but he said something in his conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda in passing that perked my ears up. He mentioned that right now, it’s “all about the content”.

BAM!

In the conditions that all of us are in right now, with most of us on self-imposed quarantines, many don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t doing their work from home or helping their kids with schoolwork. Being generally sequestered indefinitely, they yearn for content to keep them abreast of what’s going on in the world as well as something to entertain them to help pass the time. Many business-related companies that have means of broadcasting through webinars or the like are already taking advantage of this, and trying to help the “cause” of needing content to help people get through these times. So many people are not used to staying at home for long periods of time, unless they’ve been seriously ill, or snowed in from a blizzard or other natural disaster. Perhaps because I’m a bit of an introvert, and I’ve worked from home for a long time, I’m used to staying home and not going out for long stretches of time. I am a natural couch potato–my mother used to criticize me for it, but I’ve always loved watching TV to watch all the comedies, action shows, and documentaries I could. I swear half of my knowledge comes from pop culture from those years of intensely watching TV from the 1970s-1990s especially.

So, this is an opportunity to either appreciate the content that is out there or start creating your own. I’ve been watching documentaries, movies, and TV shows that were on my watch list for the longest time, and I’m starting to read some books again. At the same time,¬† I’m working with my programming chair/vice-president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter and another STC person on creating other content and events to go on virtually in the coming months.

Now, you might think that you need to have fancy equipment and lighting and audio to create content. Nope. Heck, this blog post is content. It’s taking up some of your time, and giving you something to think about, doesn’t it? Additionally, it’s not about the “bling”. Again the point is the content itself. What is the big message? What value does the content–whether it be text, video, audio, or whatever–have? Does it need to be “perfect” in order to get that main message through? In my opinion, it doesn’t not have to be glitzy. It’s nice when it is, but it doesn’t have to be. All content, as we’ve been told by content marketers, is about storytelling. Yes, that procedure manual you are writing or those instructions that you are writing as a technical writer are still telling a story. Any kind of entertainment we watch right now is content and it’s storytelling. Content storytelling comes in infinite forms, after all.

Photo of TechCommGeekMom and hubby walking in their neighborhood.
Here’s my contribution. Here’s a photo of me and my husband taking a walk around our neighborhood. It’s usually this quiet around here for the most part anyway. We didn’t stay six feet apart for long!

What kind of content are you either going to consume or create today? For me, it’s watching a mini-series on Hulu, then watching Star Trek: Picard and the Ready Room later today. I might create some storytelling by submitting my resume to another job opening. I know I’ve definitely been having conversations via social media and instant messaging with friends and family during this time. For me, most of this is generally the same as usual–I fill my life with content. Content is storytelling, but it’s also how you fill your life with experiences. Going out for a walk to get some fresh air is still absorbing content–you are using all your senses to create your story of taking that walk outside. You can translate that into further content by either video recording that walk, taking photos along the way, or writing about it later. No matter how it’s processed, it’s content.

So, while it’s frustrating to be sequestered for this long, we all know it’s for our own health and for the greater good of the PLANET. Coronavirus has definitely hit my area, and with my bad asthma, I’m hesitant to leave the house–other than a neighborhood walk–for anything for the most part. I know a lot of people are having a hard time with this, but we really are in this together. My recommendation is to concentrate on the good content that is out there. Be aware of the “doom and gloom” to be educated, but focus on the better stuff. Pay attention to how others are helping each other. Look at the content that people are putting out to ensure that you are recognized, loved, helped, and that your mind is staying active. Watch webinars and video conferences. This is a great opportunity to hone your verbal and written communications skills because working from home involves better communications skills than when you are in the office. Appreciate and enjoy all the entertainment and education that the media offers. You know I learned how to cook better over the years from watching a lot of the Food Network? My husband I have learned a lot about DIY projects and real estate from watching HGTV. It’s an opportunity for you to read all those books that you’ve been collecting to read and “will get to eventually”. This is time to spend with your families. This is a time to break out your creative side and draw, paint, knit…whatever. Learn to exercise at home doing something different–there are plenty of “dance parties” and yoga classes online where you don’t need equipment. Use this time to absorb content that will help you be a better person when you emerge from the quarantines. It will help distract you from the doom and gloom. Contribute content when you can, even if it’s a one-to-one instant message conversation with a friend, or an email. I know an email checking in on my parents lifted their spirits that I was checking in on them. Or heck, a blog post. ūüôā

It’s all about the content right now. Learn to absorb and appreciate what’s out there right now that we can use, and help contribute positive content to share.

What are your thoughts? Include your comments below.

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The COVID19 pandemic is spurring more online learning

Smiling college students in a lecture

While I’ve been talking about how it took a pandemic to truly begin to show companies that remote working is a viable option for many, I’m starting to see that it also applies to online learning. In light of the spreading virus, many university and college campuses are closing down and switching over to online classes. As a result, it seems like the ripe time for online learning–especially m-learning–to be put to the test (as if it hadn’t been already) in the same way that remote working is being put to the test.

If you look to very early entries on this blog, you’ll see that there are a LOT of articles that I’ve written in the past in favor of online learning.¬† I don’t remember the exact statistic off the top of my head as I write this, but I remember reading that there are more active smartphones in the world than there are people, and those in third-world countries are more likely to have a mobile or smartphone than a computer and adopt mobile learning (also known as m-learning) than other places.

What prompted this post was that I was reading social media posts and responses of parents who are skeptical or worried about their children’s education having to switch online (especially college students) for the rest of the semester. As someone who has done all of her graduate credentials (three graduate certificates and a master’s degree) online from “brick and mortar” schools in the last ten years, and having taught two graduate classes online for a “brick and mortar” university, I can tell you that students will only lose out if the professor teaching doesn’t put a little bit of time into what they post on online courses.

If a professor has got a good foundation for the curriculum, it will be easy to follow. Assignments will still be due and graded, and online forums, chat groups, etc. will be MORE important. It’s a matter of how well laid-out the course is in a learning management system (LMS) and how strong the curriculum is. It’s also a matter of how well students and instructors choose to communicate. Short of being in person, it’s important to utilize all online means possible to ask questions and discuss in order to continue the learning process. To be honest, this kind of communication, in fact, is actually good training for the real world. We can’t always be in face-to-face contact with clients or co-workers globally, and using conference calls, online forums, chat groups, instant messaging, and email are all par for the course (no pun intended). This is the norm! Getting used to this not only helps to keep their education going, but it also prepares them for the “real world” and expanding their communications skills.¬†

I’ve been a huge advocate for online learning for at least a decade now. It can be done, and like anything else, it’s a matter for the student to be dedicated towards reading the syllabus and assignments carefully, following instructions, and putting the same amount of effort in, if not more. The success of the course lays on how the course information and lines of communication are kept open by the instructor. It’s an adjustment for those who are not used to doing things this way, but it’s been a feasible way of doing things for more than a decade, and now, more learning is being forced into seeing this as a viable option out of necessity.¬†

What are your thoughts? Include your comments below. 

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4 Lessons Learned (About Learning) From Blogging

Blogs provide great insight and are a helpful educational tool. But did you know the act of blogging can teach us something, too? Danielle Villegas explains.

Source: 4 Lessons Learned (About Learning) From Blogging

Thanks to Phylise Banner, Jennifer Hofmann, and InSync Training for the opportunity to write this article for InSync Training’s blog,¬†Body Language in the Bandwidth.¬†

I based this article on the many years I’ve been writing here on TechCommGeekMom and other blogs I’ve written over time. I hope there’s helpful information for you here! It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed writing it.

–TechCommGeekMom

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Confessions of a Failed Technical Communicator

homer_confession
Really, Father, my only sins are beer, donuts, beer, donuts, not knowing DITA, beer, donuts…

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned! I am a failure in technical communications.”

OK, perhaps in many eyes, I haven’t been a failure in technical communications. It will be five years this spring since I graduated with my Masters degree in Professional and Technical Communication from NJIT. In many ways, that feels like it was just yesterday, and I’m still a “new graduate”. But with the change this year in my STC Membership that’s moved from “Student” to “New Professional” to “Classic”, I supposed I’m not anymore.

While graduate school gave me a good foundation to move forward, I learned very quickly that I needed to continue to educate myself. As I attended conferences and presentations, and paid attention to discussions in social media, I found out that graduate school lessons barely cut the surface. I’ve tried my best to continue my studies by attending as many webinars, conferences, and presentations that I can. I even took another university graduate certificate course on digital marketing, hoping to get some insight that might help me going forward.

However, in the end, I failed to do one thing that might actually boost what I’m doing as a fledgling content strategist, and thus, my confession: I needed to learn DITA.

For those of you who don’t know what DITA is, it’s the acronym for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it’s a commonly used method for creating structured authoring using XML coding. The idea is that documentation done using DITA methods will allow for single-sourcing for content elements, and equally make it easier to integrate that content into print or digital outputs in a super-organized, modular way. It’s a standard that helps because it’s generic to almost any system out there. Any system that can read XML can read a DITA document, for the most part. When moving from one system to another, the content can stay intact if done using DITA/XML methods.

I don’t remember learning much about DITA in grad school, other than understanding what it was in general as I explained it above. I never learned the details. In my work life so far, I haven’t needed it. ¬†It’s always been unstructured authoring. I try to take some small steps to create some single-sourcing content when possible in content management systems, but that was hard to do sometimes. One of my¬†recent jobs made me realize¬†that we needed some sort of structured authoring done, but I didn’t know how to go about it. We created our own coding tags to describe things going on in copy decks. It wasn’t the best, but it was better than nothing.

In the past year, I’ve tried to figure out ways to continue to improve my skills, and make myself more marketable as a content strategist/content manager. I talked to the leading experts in the field. (It’s one of the benefits of getting involved with the STC and attending STC events–you get to know these people personally.) And the one thing that seemed to come back to me again and again was that I had a good resume, and I have some great skills under my belt, and they knew that I was a good writer from this blog. The biggest sore spot in my skill set was that¬†I lacked an important skill–knowing DITA and using it. ¬†And while I looked for jobs in my area that included DITA practices (I think I’ve only seen one listing in three years), I’ve been assured that if I could learn DITA,¬†the remote/telecommuting possibilities could be much better for me. And since remote opportunities are my best bet right now, I have to do what I need to do to make that happen.

So, as the saying goes, I bit the bullet. Fortunately, the STC was promoting a course about DITA Essentials taught by Bernard Aschwanden, the Immediate Past-President of the STC, and the proprietor of Publishing Smarter. Bernard’s a great instructor, and he’s taking it nice and slow. One of the best parts of the course is hands-on experience, even if it’s in the simplest ways. That’s the way I tend to learn best–learn the logistics of how something is done, then I need to learn to do the work through trial and error. ¬†Last week’s assignment was particularly challenging for me. While I understood what I had to do conceptually, since I was also trying to familiarize myself with a few XML editors at the same time while applying what I wanted to do with my assignment, I got very frustrated. I sent in my assignment, along with notes about where I was getting frustrated and needing some guidance. Bernard assured me that all would be well, and asked me if he could use what I had turned in for my assignment for the most recent class. He also warned me to have a glass of wine ready while taking class, because I’d be needing it. Yikes!

I was told to prepare for the onslaught of big corrections to my DITA homework with a glass of wine. I took the suggestion seriously, thankfully.
I was told to prepare for the onslaught of big corrections to my DITA homework with a glass of wine. I took the suggestion seriously, thankfully.

The glass of wine was done by the end of the class, and yes, he ripped my assignment apart, but it was okay in the end. I knew there were problems with it, and he showed me where my original thought process was correct, but I didn’t know how to execute it properly. One of the mistakes I was making was my use of XML tags, particularly using the correct ones. While the XML editing apps all have guidance features to help you with using correct tags in certain situations, I still wasn’t using the best choices. Most of that was because I’m not familiar with what these XML tags mean, so I was using them at face value. For example, I was using a step example tag in part of my content, and Bernard understood why I used it, but felt that the way I used it was incorrect, and didn’t allow for cleaner coding. Okay, I can deal with that, especially when he demonstrated the correction.

So, as much as I’m struggling with DITA, I do understand the essential concepts behind it now. My biggest problem is learning how to use it beyond the most elementary tasks. I haven’t had any “real world” scenarios to date when I could implement and learn how to use the XML editors and use DITA practices in writing or rewriting content. ¬†I need to figure out how to find content and start having a way to truly play with something so that I can get the full experience of that trial and error to master DITA.

After the STC course that Bernard is teaching, I plan to follow-up with Scriptorium’s DITA tutorials as well, and see if I can learn some more about XML coding. I have a lot to do to figure this out, but I know that in the end, this will be a big skill that will make a lot of difference in how I approach content. The content strategist skills I already have acquired have helped me frame DITA much more easily than if I learned this with no prior knowledge. But, I can tell that I still have a long way to go before I feel that I’ve mastered this.

So, this ends my confession. I have needed to learn DITA. ¬†If it’s not taught in university classes in technical writing, it should be. I think it would have saved me a lot of frustration, and provided more opportunities for me sooner. If I can get a better handle on this, I’m hoping that I can start exploring how XML Editors can integrate with CMSs, like Adobe CQ. I’m not an Adobe AEM developer (I’m not a developer at all!), but I know how to create websites and pages with AEM, and hopefully I can start figuring out how to integrate those skills with DITA skills. I was told by one mentor, that would make me a very desirable job candidate, and I think she’s onto something. Of course, I need to brush up on my AEM skills, since it’s been a couple of years since I’ve used them regularly, but with all things, once you master them, it’s like riding a bicycle. You might be a little unstable at first, but you never quite forget how to do it once you get started back into it again.

Here’s hoping that in 2017, DITA will become a “bicycle” skill for me. I’ll go say a few rounds of the Rosary in the meantime for my penance.

(What do you think? How important is DITA in technical writing? I’ve heard some say it’s a passing trend, and others say that its usage continues to grow. Include your comments below.)

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What Can Technical Communication Do After The U.S. Election?

bill-teds-excellent-adventure-confused
DUDE! What just happened?

In the past week, the United States had an important election for its next President. The election results, to say the least, have been controversial. While I’m not one to usually talk politics on this website, I’ll simply say that this past week has been devastating to me, and has hit me hard. It wasn’t because my candidate lost, but because her opposition, who promoted MANY values which I do not endorse in the least, was elected. There has been a segment of people¬†in my country, that as a result of this new leader’s position, that think that they, too, can engage and promote these inappropriate behaviors, while others are trying to find ways to express and take action against those inappropriate behaviors.

I’ve been thinking long and deeply about how this election affects the technical communications community. I know people involved in technical communications that voted for candidates from both parties. Most of the technical communications community that I know had the same reaction that I did–one of deep disappointment. There were some who were happy for the outcome, but the overwhelming majority of the technical communicators I know were not–including some who aren’t even American citizens and are living outside of the U.S.!

A big part of my disappointment is that the President-Elect, who is not known to choose his words well or speak eloquently, promoted animosity towards people of different colors, people of different faiths, people of different sexual orientation or identification, and women in general. That’s problematic. These are all people who contribute to our society in positive ways, and don’t have any reason to be maligned at all. AT ALL. ¬†I’ve always talked about the technical communications community being my “clan”. During¬†the years I’ve become more involved with the tech comm community, I’ve found that each time I get together with my tech comm bretheren, the diversity among¬†American technical communicators is what makes us an example of how American diversity is supposed to work. ¬†This diversity carries over into our relationships with technical communicators around the world.

A big part of tech comm, especially in the last five to ten years (if not longer) has been embracing the knowledge that globalization and localization is an important key to effective technical communication. Whether it’s for business purposes or otherwise, a large part of what technical communicators do is write with the ability to reach out to the world. Not just their own hometowns, their own states, their own regions, or their own country–they write for a global audience. ¬†With recent events, we are reminded that we need to continue to keep our hearts and minds open to different languages, different cultures, different religions, and different traditions here at home before it even goes abroad.

The other thing that has me very concerned is the economy. The U.S. was in a deep recession before the current President took his office. The economy has recovered, with the unemployment rate easily half of what it was during the recession. I’m definitely one of those people who felt that pinch, but worked hard to end up ahead. During these recession years, I went back to school–and some of it was paid for by my state’s training programs for re-employment–to reinvent myself as a technical communicator. I realized what my skills were, where I had gaps, and I filled the gaps as best as I could. Even now, I still do that. I constantly am trying to pick up new skills to keep myself flexible and employable.

When the world starts getting topsy-turvy, companies react for self-preservation, and that can result in job losses, often for people like technical communicators. It’s the old thing of doing more with less, so hiring stops or slows down until the company can figure out how the election will impact the economy. We’re in that position now, which is not good for those of us who are currently looking for new projects or jobs right now. So as we’ve had to do before, we’ll need to learn to adapt again.

Related to the economy, I’ve been listening to the pundits on television talk about how both political parties ignored¬†a specific segment of disengaged voters from¬†rural America that made their needs known through their votes. We’re feeling the impact of those votes now, but it has opened up a discussion about how to address bridging the gap. The focus of the political parties, according to the pundits, concentrated more on those who were living in the big cities and the suburbs instead of addressing the needs of rural America, or not addressing rural America as much as it should be.

This issue provoked a lot of deep thinking for me. One of my biggest issues related to rural America¬†that I can relate to as a technical communicator has been finding work outside of a large city. While I live in between New York City and Philadelphia–two of the biggest cities in the United States where there are plenty of technical communication opportunities–they are too far a commute for me to go on a daily basis. Now, imagine someone who has a great set of technical communications skills, but then lives somewhere that isn’t anywhere near a big city. What do they do? Additionally, thinking even outside the box of technical communications, why isn’t there more industry spreading out around the country, to bridge those gaps? For example, why doesn’t Apple have offices in the middle of Nebraska that can start to help devise tech tools that can help various types of farmers in the rural areas of the U.S.? That’s not their focus, I know, but perhaps they should start thinking outside of their own box. How could someone in rural America use their products, provided that they could afford them? How would those products help agricultural services grow and prosper? The biggest question of all this is, how can we ensure that rural America is part of the globalization and localization movements?¬†I was remembering that for many years–I don’t know if it’s still in place–that the U.S. Goverment used to pay farmers to NOT produce surpluses of crops. What if we could help them, by allowing farmers to produce whatever they produce, and help them learn how to globalize their businesses with shipping their crops or products made with those crops? When those government subsidies were created, there was no internet commerce, no globalization on the scale there is now. How can we, as technical communicators, help change that view and help that person globalize their business? (Perhaps I’m over-simplifying things here and don’t have a full grasp of economics, but hopefully you understand where I’m going with this thought process.)

Part of that, in my opinion, goes back to two things I’ve talked about many times in this blog. First, we need to make mobile learning a priority, because it’s not just second- or third-world countries that need opportunities to advance. There are already segments within the U.S. that have yelled loudly through their votes during this election that they need it, too. Education is progress, even in rural areas. If someone has a problem with land producing crops, and they only know the old solutions that aren’t working, then technology is going to be the solution in educating them on how to create or learn new solutions.

Second, companies have to start being more flexible towards remote work. Not everyone can get up and move to a big city or large suburban area to find appropriate work. They need to stay in their community for whatever reason. A great solution in figuring out how to extend globalization and localization within our own borders is allowing remote work. That way, that person from rural America can work doing what he/she does best, while still being an active and vital member to their community, and perhaps with the good pay they have, can help to revitalize their local economy, bringing that knowledge to their community instead of having to move elsewhere and not making a direct impact.

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it. ¬†We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

This isn’t just something that Americans need to do right now, but it’s everyone globally who supports the basic values of every human being being treated with respect and dignity, and providing moral support whenever possible that needs to be part of this. We all have the same human rights and needs. We all need to be able to live together, work together, and survive together. Technical communicators have the ability to shape ideas and processes. We are strategists at heart, whether as wordsmiths, content strategists, or instructional designers, or any other title that falls under the umbrella that describes technical communication.

In the coming weeks, months, and years ahead, we need to figure out how each of us¬†can contribute to this human goal, starting at home. Let’s start with the words from the Wyld Stallions of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”:

bill-teds-excellent-adventure-photo
“Be excellent to each other!”