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.
While I was perusing Facebook this late afternoon, I saw a post from someone who is an adjunct instructor where I teach. He’s also been an adjunct at other places, and also held more full-time teaching positions at various schools, both at the secondary and higher education levels. He posted something that he saw from LinkedIn that showed that there were a LOT of adjunct instructor positions open in New Jersey (where we are both located). He was puzzled as to why.
My first thought was that the next semester will be starting in about two months, so I’m sure that schools are now scrambling to find instructors for certain courses. But it was my second thought that made me think that either I’m a bit clever or I’m on to something here with the economy.
My second thought directly relates to what’s going on in the tech comm industry, and it seems to be pouring over into higher education, from the looks of it. This is what I mean specifically: right now, a good part of the tech comm industry work availability is based on gigs and a gig-based economy. There are very few full-time, employee jobs for technical communicators these days, unless you hit the employment lottery. I’m sure there are a lot of tech comm’ers who will back me up when I say that most of the time, it’s a matter of us going to consulting contract to consulting contract, anywhere from a few weeks to a couple years, but never as an employee (except perhaps to a recruiting agency). Some people like being able to jump from job to job, but I’m sure there’s a good sized segment of us that don’t feel that way, and wouldn’t mind the security of something longer term and permanent employment (for as much as that’s worth these days). For example, I’m currently in a situation where I work for a recruiter, but they employ almost the entire department that contributes to the work, and each “employee/consultant” is considered a “freelance consultant”, meaning that they will assign you work that is project-based, not X hours per week. The company that employs the recruiter has this as “flexible staffing”, meaning they bring on or drop consultants as they need to do the workload they have. That works great for the company, as they only need to pay for what they need. The recruiter benefits, because they are still getting money in. It only benefits the consultant in that they work the hours they are available. If you are trying to get full-time work, it’s only available if they have that much available for you. It’s good when you have to make doctor’s appointments or take a day off because of a conference, but not so great for job security.
Now look at adjunct instructors. In my mind, universities and colleges are doing the same thing. Instead of trying to bring in more full-time staff, or even true part-time staff, they bring in “consultants”, AKA adjuncts, who can teach the courses, but don’t pay much for the many hours that they put into a course, even if it’s one class. If they don’t need the adjunct for the next semester, they drop them. If they need them, then they hire. I see this possibly happening as more people are not looking into academic careers as they are not well-paying and don’t have the same benefits as using their expertise in the private–or even public sector, depending on the job. It’s flexible staffing on the university level. I’m sure it’s a way for a university to save money, but long-term, just like in the “real world”, I don’t know that it’s a great solution. It doesn’t help the university when it comes to continuity for the curriculum and the strength of a department’s program, just as it can be precarious with many hands and no governance that happens in industry. I feel like I’ve seen this before, and now I’m seeing again.
In either case, the “flexible staff” is doing the same work as someone who’s permanent, but without all the benefits and job security. Again, that might work on a business level, but it doesn’t always work well on a human level. It’s a precarious position to be in. Why would someone even take these “flexible” staffing jobs if they aren’t so great? Well, it’s the difference of being employed–even if it’s for a short time–and being unemployed. That’s why. Something instead of nothing is sometimes the only choice available. I know it has been for me for a long time.
What do you think? Can you think of any other examples? Am I seeing something that isn’t there, or am I, indeed, onto something that is a reflection of our economy and the way anyone does business anymore? (I don’t think it’s a good trend, by the way, if you can’t tell.) Include your comments below.
Yes, you are seeing this correctly. There’s a blog posting from me. No need to double-blink in disbelief. I am still alive and well. I don’t always get much of a chance to write here because I’m busy! One of these days, I’ll try to catch up with what’s going on with me, but in summary, I’m busy teaching a technical editing class at NJIT, working a part-time gig for BASF, working a “freelance contract” with a pharmaceutical company as a digital content strategist, and working my tail off for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as president, conference chair, sponsorship chair, and competition chair. Not a lot of time to come up for air these days!
But as I do have a short moment right now to put these thoughts down, I thought I’d start this conversation, because it is a frequent topic that comes up again and again in all the things I’m working on these days.
Where are the boundary lines what constitutes digital literacy? Just like a person needing to know how to read and write, we live in an age where almost everything is done digitally these days. You can’t do a lot of what you used to be able to do on paper or manually. You call a toll-free helpline, and you are most likely to get an automated chatbot responding to you before you can even get to a real person. Credit cards use chips increasingly more than the magnetic strips, or even use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or the like. To get help for anything, most people go online to find answers through browser searches. So where’s the line of what’s considered digitally literate and digitally illiterate?
I bring this up because I often get into discussions about what is acceptable and user-friendly UX, and what’s not. I usually follow the tech comm mantra of “know your audience”, so many of the audiences I have to deal with aren’t necessarily the most digitally savvy bunch. I’ll argue to include something to make interactivity with the site more apparent, whereas others will argue that it’s not necessary.
I also wonder about people who still can’t figure things out like social media, or GMail or Google Drive, or things like that. These have been around for a decade–or more! There are other apps and sites that have also been around for a long time, and people still have no clue how to begin to use them (and it’s more disturbing to me when it’s someone who has to either work with digital on a daily basis, write for digital, or is teaching digital). Now, some may argue that it’s a generational thing, but I don’t agree. I know people who are my parents’ age (into their 70s) who have a better clue than I do about how to use digital, and are very good at it. And then I know people younger than me who have no idea how to use word processing or a simple spreadsheet. It runs the gamut. Digital has been a part of society for at least the last 30 years, and there isn’t anybody who isn’t touched by it these days. Those who don’t adapt fall behind. Digital is pretty much everywhere, and it’s even easier to use now than it was in the decades before.
Case in point: I recently had to go for my yearly eye exam. My optometrist is still scheduling in a paper book, does her bookkeeping in a paper book (the receptionist writes out receipts rather than prints them out), and most of the records are still done solely on paper. Additionally, they don’t have an up-to-date database or access to one to look up insurance information. I was told that I didn’t have certain kind of coverage, but when the place that I got my glasses (a different place than my doctor) looked the information up, I did have the coverage. Why? They could access the information online more easily. While it seems old-fashioned, my doctor is actually severely behind the times, and she’s going to have issues keeping up with more modern practices soon enough. She complains that there’s no software that meets her needs, but she doesn’t know that no software will meet ALL of her needs, and she needs to work with a vendor to customize things as much as possible so that it WILL meet her needs.
I also had to deal with someone for whom I had help them sign onto Google Drive and Gmail. I’ve told this person many times how to do it–in writing, no less–and they still can’t figure it out. I don’t think it’s my instructions, as others have used the same instructions without any issues. I think part of it is a conscientious mental block that person puts up, because they don’t want to learn.
So, this is why I ask…
As a society, we put great emphasis on the basics of learning how to read and write. Same thing for understanding the basics of mathematics. So what’s the functional literacy level for using digital? I will grant you that understanding how to use digital has evolved over time. But there’s a point where, even as technical writers, we need to be promoting better ways to be literate. For example, if you are on a webpage, and you see text that’s in a different color or especially if it’s underlined, wouldn’t that tell you that it’s a hyperlink, and it’s going to take you somewhere else or open another window? Then why do we still have text like, “Click here to view the video” instead of “View the video”–or better yet, if the title of the video is mentioned in the sentence, just hyperlink the video title? This is especially true when it comes to writing for mobile, as you can’t “click” on something, just as you can’t “tap” on a desktop/laptop interface unless you have a touch screen. This is an example of something that’s incredibly basic, yet there are those who still don’t get it.
So how do we define the parameters of being digitally literate versus being digitally illiterate in this day and age? I know I have my own ideas, but I would like to hear yours. How would you define these parameters? Include your comments below.
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.
“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!
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.)