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Survivor’s Guilt?

Picture shows; JOHN HURT as The Doctor and BILLIE PIPER as Rose Tyler in the 50th Anniversary Special - The Day of the Doctor
Even if you are the last Time Lord standing for good reason, you can’t help but feel guilty sometimes.

I’m in a position that I haven’t really been in before–or at least not for a long time. While my private life is always in flux and stressful, my professional life is generally in good shape for the moment. Even typing that makes me a little superstitious that I’ve now ruined my good luck. But at the same time, I’ve worked hard to get to this point, so I shouldn’t feel guilty. So why do I, at least a little?

Let me back up a little here…this is my reaction to things going on around me at the moment. At this time, there are a lot of companies that are having huge layoffs. ‘Tis the season, unfortunately. The end of the year–especially when many contracts would normally either come to a close or be renewed are not being renewed. We’re seeing huge layoffs at some of the biggest tech companies like Twitter (well, that’s an entirely different story as to why), Meta (aka Facebook), Amazon, Lyft, Salesforce, Microsoft, and the list goes on. Even my company has had some workforce reductions, in that at least speaking for my department, some contractors will not be back after the new year, and there some rearranging going on. Because I’m an employee, I didn’t make the cut–at least not this round.

I say “not this round” because I’ve learned over the decades that there is no such thing as “safe” in the work industry anymore. Generation X was the first generation that understood and experienced that you couldn’t join a company for life and get the mentorship to build a career. We’ve always been on our own, so I learned the hard way very early. Even so, I’ve known people who’ve either been at their company for long periods of time. My husband is one of those lucky souls that’s been at his company for about 20 years now. I know a few others. I believe that my true record for being anywhere is either 37 months, or 7 years–depending on how you view it. The 37-month long job was a permanent position which I left to join a dot-com in the late 1990s. The 7 year one was one which I was a contractor for 2 1/2 years, had a three month break, but then worked part-time (very part-time) as a side gig for another 4 1/2 years. I usually count the former as my true longest gig.

Other than that one long contracting position that was more off than on, I’ve never been in one place long enough in this century to break that 37-month record. I’m hoping I’m on a path to do that, but I don’t hold my breath. I’ve been in my current position for 25 months, of which I’ve been a permanent employee for the past 9 months. I like where I am, and while I’m anxious about what the new year will bring with all the changes, there’s a part of me that’s conflicted about still being where I am, but it’s not what you think.

I don’t have any feeling that I want to leave anytime soon. However, I do have PTSD about layoffs. I’ve seen it too many times. Contractors always are the first to go. But then there’s usually another round that comes to take away the rest. It follows the old saying of “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. The contractors are the first shoe–would I be part of a group that would be the other shoe that has yet to drop? In my head, I don’t think I would be because of the work that my manager and I do–we are relatively critical for ongoing maintenance of the big projects we’ve done in the past two years going forward. That said, I also know that technical communicators are usually underappreciated because so many in leadership don’t understand our value. Many people think they can write, but those in technical writing know better. Even so, I think I’ve asked my manager many times in the last month since finding out that the contractors were not getting their contracts renewed after the new year if we were next. The PTSD kicked in something fierce.

Once I’d been strongly assured that I was “safe” and there was evidence that yes, I have security in the near future and don’t have to start looking for work, naturally I relaxed. But there’s a part of me that said I shouldn’t be so relaxed and feel almost unaffected. My co-workers and friends are being laid off in droves. Some of them are much more experienced than me, and yet, they are out there looking for work. I’ve done my best to try to share job listings when I see them, but it’s now getting to be too much. I want to be a good friend and good person to network with, but part of me almost feels TOO relaxed that it wasn’t my turn for a change. I feel emotionally neutral due to my version of survivor’s guilt. It’s usually me impacted, and for once, it’s not. One part of my brain is telling me that I should not feel guilty, because it’s just business and that I’ve worked hard to put myself in this position of safety. I should enjoy the fact that I’m not stressed out because of my job. Very busy, yes, but not stressed. I know the next month is going to be full of transition learning, transition of my responsibilities, and just getting a lot of normal, high-volume, end-of-the-year work that needs to be done, but I have the support of my manager and the company behind me for a change. I should feel good about this! (And I do!)

But then another part of my brain tells me that’s not being completely cool. I’ve been in the same position as all those people who’ve been laid off WAY too many times myself. I understand the stress, the anxiety, the depression, and the uncertainty that comes with being laid off, even if you know ahead of time. So many of those who were laid off in these past months didn’t deserve to have their livelihood taken away from them, and shouldn’t feel like less when it wasn’t a reflection of their actual work. There are certain habits that I haven’t broken since I was a contractor because of those things, like working a lot (if you don’t work, you don’t get paid), and saving as much as I can in the bank, not spending a lot on big trips or big ticket items, because you don’t know if you might need that money to pay bills and feed your family. I’ve shed the tears, been hysterical, felt lower than low about myself and my predicament more times that I’d like to count. (Hence, the PTSD about layoffs.) So, I should be supportive and try to help when I can– and I do my best.

So, it just feels weird to be in this position–hence, the “survivor’s guilt”. So many are impacted right now, when the world is barely getting its footing back after the pandemic and inflation is higher than it’s been in a very long time, and your paycheck doesn’t stretch as far as it used to…I get it. For the moment, I’m not as impacted as so many technical communicators right now. I do count my blessings, but don’t you think for one moment that I think that I’m smug about not being laid off, or that I don’t care. I do. But for the moment, I’m willing to feel okay about it.

At the same time, for those who haven’t been in this position before, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remember to file for unemployment insurance. Unless you’ve been a freelancer the entire time, you’ve probably paid into that fund even as a contractor for some agency. You may have a lot saved up or not much, but either way, it’s YOUR money–that’s why it’s called unemployment insurance. It doesn’t last forever, but it might help you pay some bills and hold you over a little bit while you look.
  • Don’t stop looking–even during the holidays. My observation over the years is that there are two main recruiting times during the year, namely November through January (for calendar budget years) and between May and July (for fiscal calendar years). So, even with vacations and holidays when hiring managers may not always be available, don’t give up! Keep pursuing and looking because while jobs will still become available during other months, those seem to be the biggest rush months for work.
  • That said, do take time for yourself during holidays. Getting laid off around the holidays is the worst! You’ve already got all the usual holiday stresses, and now you have work/money stress to add on top of that! Even so, cut yourself a break. Take some time to catch your breath, regroup, and enjoy the holidays as best as you can under the circumstances. A new year is ahead, and it’s an opportunity for a new start! (And new starts can begin anytime.) It’s a chance to reassess your personal as well as professional circumstance, and decide how you want to move forward? Do you want a more challenging job or a less challenging job? Are you willing to move? Do you want to work remotely or an office? Do you want to change fields? Are you taking care of yourself and your family, and how does work support that? Now’s the time to do that.
  • On the job hunt, there are several things to keep in mind as well:
    • Make sure you update your resume and LinkedIn profile and take the opportunity to ensure that it’s cleaned up, grammatically correct, and laid out well structurally. A misspelling for someone applying for a tech editor position, for example, would be an automatic “no”. First impressions count. There are plenty of template resources out on the web that can help you with that if it’s been a while. LinkedIn is a HUGE resource for recruiters, and having an incomplete profile does not do you any favors. It should mimic your resume at a minimum.
    • Send out as many applications/resumes as you can. As my husband would remind me all the time, you have more chance of catching a fish if you have multiple fishing lines out on the water–even if you only need one fish. I’ve been through situations with other economic downturns where a single position that used to get 10 applicants now gets 100 or 1000 applicants. As a result that’s no fault of your own, you get ghosted or never hear anything back about a position. So, the more of them you send out, it increases your chances of getting a response.
    • If you see something that you think you might be able to do, but you don’t have experience in “X” (something requested in the job description), apply for it anyway–even if it’s a few things that are missing. There was a study that was done that showed that women in particular were guilty of that–not applying for a position because the job description had a few things required, and the applicant didn’t have 100% of the requirements. Men will more often apply even if they don’t have everything. But I also know men who have that same mentality–if I don’t have all of it, I can’t apply. Not true. I didn’t have any experience in InDesign, Service Now, or how to navigate in Workday, and I was taught all of it in the past two years, and then more. I had the foundational skills that allowed me to learn these quickly, and that’s part of the reason that I got my job. I was able to adapt, and my resume showed that I had the foundational skills to learn and adapt. So take a shot–you don’t know where it might lead you. You can always say no if you get a job offer if you don’t think it’s a good fit. But you have to apply to get to that point first.
    • Keep a spreadsheet–Excel or Google Sheets is fine–to track your search. It doesn’t have to be much, but I usually include the position title, the company (or the client company and the recruiting company), the name of the contact or recruiter with their phone number and email info, the date of contact, the date I forwarded my info, and a field or two where I track the dates of each step going forward. There are times I’ve sent so many applications out that I’ve lost track of where I’ve applied, who I’ve talked to, where I am in the process, etc. This will help keep you on track.
    • Take advantage of your network. For me, it’s always been about my tech comm social media network and my STC network–especially my STC network. Making those connections with other professionals in your field and supporting organizations can make a big difference. They can provide leads, or even advice as you do your job search. Again, with my current job, when I initially applied for it as a contractor, it was the only job I had been offered as a contractor that preferred STC membership. When I asked my manager during my interview why she was looking for that, she said that she felt that those in STC cared about their careers and were the ones that more often went for continuing education to stay on top of the profession. Well, as active as I am in STC, I had that (and still have that) in spades! I also worked my network at the time as I had an STC connection who had gone to my same grad program and used to be in my chapter (she moved) who was in the same company, and I could ask her about her experiences, what kinds of questions they often ask about during interviews, etc. I was able to reciprocate the favor recently when she was looking for a new position, and I could forward her the job openings at my company! That’s how it works. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but people are always willing to help, so take advantage of that!
    • Take the opportunity to learn something new. Whenever I had a gap in employment, I’ve always used that time to invest in myself. What is a skill I could improve? What’s a software program that is being requested more often that I don’t know? What’s something that I’d like to learn because I’m interested? There are so many educational opportunities and choices! I started my master’s degree because I was unemployed, and I was switching professions (or at least making a course correction), and with appropriate paperwork, etc. I was able to get the state unemployment department to pay for my first three courses of my degree. A bit of savings there! There are also so many other resources out there–STC has a great educational program that I’ve benefitted from, LinkedIn has courses (I took several when it was still, and there’s something to fit any budget. Understanding a skill that you may not have used yet will still get you a little bit ahead of not knowing anything about a skill. For example, you don’t know about structured authoring? Plenty of free resources to teach you.
    • If you are in tech comm, create an online presence. Even if you worked on proprietary stuff, use some items and change it up with fake names and processes that will help you display your aptitude. Create an online portfolio with different examples of the kinds of writing or other skills (like graphic arts, UX design, HTML programming, etc.) that you can show. Another way is to participate in social media forums or heck, write a blog on topics! This very blog was started for that reason–to show prospective employers what I know in a more conversational way. This blog is now 10 years old, so I think it’s been doing a good job for me, even if I don’t write as often as I used to.
    • Do contract work or part-time gigs, as you don’t know where they might lead for the better. One of the things that brings me relief that I’m not currently part of any layoffs is that until I got this current position I’m in, I had not worked a full-time, permanent employee position since the year 2000. Seriously. It’s been 22 years since I worked full-time as an employee, and I don’t mean as a full-time employee of some contracting agency. That’s been a big adjustment. Granted, some of those years were years off to be a stay-at-home mom, but those that weren’t–all contracting jobs. So if you are used to having full-time permanent employment, don’t diss contract work. It might be the difference between having a paycheck or no paycheck. Money is money, right? That said, that also goes for part-time employment. I’ve been in part-time positions, or even juggled two or three at a time so that I had a relatively steady income for a while. All my contracts and part-time gigs gave me an opportunity to learn something new that I could put on my resume, or advance my skills even more. It got me to where I am now, so do what you need to do to be employed. Sometimes even taking a slight pay cut might reap rewards later. There are opportunities where contracts can be converted to full-time permanent employee, or you’ve at least gained an opportunity to apply at a client for a full-time permanent position, but it’s because you put the work in first. It’s not an automatic thing. I’ve had at least two occasions when I was told that they were going to convert me, and then it didn’t happen (would get laid off instead). My current position is the first time it converted, but I still had to go through the same process as if I came off the street. It was not automatic or a shoo-in. But, I’m sure I had an advantage of already knowing the work.
    • Don’t give up. Give yourself a break, but don’t give up. Looking for work is an unpaid full-time job in itself, and it can be really, REALLY frustrating when there is a lot of competition out there. Just continue to work every angle you can, do as many searches through as many contacts as you can, and go back to that first bullet above of advice. The more lines you put out, the more opportunities that someone will “bite” and you’ll get that interview and job. But it can take time–which can be excruciating at times. Just don’t give up until the job is done.

Everyone is worthy of having the ability to contribute to society through a variety of means, and make a living from it. Intellectually, most of us know that when we are laid off, it’s a business decision and not a reflection of our body of work or work ethic, even if it feels very strongly that it’s personal. It will feel personal for a long while–I won’t lie to you about that. But having been in the situation too many times, and falling into the same emotional trap, these are the steps I take to ensure that I can be at my best when that next opportunity does come around.

What are your thoughts and experiences about layoffs in tech comm? Share your experience in the comments.

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It’s the climb…

If you are on social media–specifically Facebook, you know that Facebook will show you “memories” from past posts on a given day. Recently, it’s been showing me posts and photos from what I think was very much a breakthrough day in the start of my career–spending 36 hours in Portland, OR at LavaCon 2012. I had done a webinar in about four months prior for Adobe, as someone who used to be in their marketing team discovered me, and had me participate in their webinar series at the time. But it was Adobe’s invitation to “cover” Adobe Day the day before the big start of LavaCon for this blog that was my first real introduction into the tech comm universe–I guess you can say my “debut to” tech comm society (like a debutante of sorts). There, I met many people that I had only known through social media, and remain friends with them to this day. Seven months or so from this writing will mark the 10th anniversary of the first STC Summit that I attended in Atlanta (which ironically will be in Atlanta again this year), and met a whole bunch more people similarly.

What’s hanging on in my mind is the journey I’ve had to take from that point at LavaCon 2012 to now…how many job changes I’ve had, how many dry spells of unemployment I’ve had, how many jobs that were good or bad, my adventures with STC and other tech comm outlets, and finally, all the people. I mean, some people that I met at LavaCon in that very short spell there are still friends who I rely on, and who I consider mentors. Same with those I met at my first Summit. Some of them gave me exposure and breaks to help me find jobs along the way and foster my writing. Sometimes, I’ve learned things that were not tech comm related that have either been set by example or were a good life skill. I think the point is that–WOW! Over the last 10 years, I’ve met SO many people in the tech comm field that have supported me along the rough road I’ve had to take along the way to get to where I am now, who didn’t give up on me when I had given up on myself. Hence, to get to where I am now, it’s been “a climb”.

These days, I’m in a good place professionally. For the moment, I like being a full-time employee, which I really haven’t been for more than 22 years (since before my son was born). I’m fortunate in that I get to work remotely, as this has always been important so I could be flexible and available for my family. I get to flex my tech comm muscles, and I feel like I do my job well, and have gained the trust of those I work with. I reflect on both the good contracts and not-so-good contracts I had, and how they’ve all helped me focus on what I do best, learn skills along the way, and figure out what I really want from my career. I’ve also advanced to being elected as a board director for the STC with some hard work, a lot of support, and some luck thrown in there, too. All the tech comm friends I’ve had along the way have supported me both professionally and with my STC endeavors, and that’s been a big help.

The one area that is suffering right now, however, is my sanity as a parent. I’ve written often about my son over the years. You would think that as a young adult with Asperger’s Syndrome who’s had so much support over many years, he’d be in a good spot. However, we’ve hit a big snag. He’s SO close to being done with his degree, but his program requires working at FOUR internships (basically, working for about 18 months as an apprentice) during his participation in the program. He’s made two attempts at working, and he never gets past working a full week. For him, working three eight-hour days plus two days of classes is just too much. He’s also putting a lot of pressure on himself because he feels he needs to be “perfect” or at least better than any other newbies there so that he can stand out, but he can’t keep up with the pace. He’s spent more time in a dealership bathroom crying than I think most people ever have! He’s just not ready for that. So far, the director of the program is allowing him to continue to take classes, but he’s not so flexible with this internship thing. He’s also not helpful, as it’s obvious that my son needs to be in an environment where accuracy of the work supersedes speed, which is not the environment of your average car dealership. The program director insists that the students need to find jobs on their own–which my son has done twice now, but he won’t help give us any leads for someone who might be a better fit for my kid so that he can gain some confidence and experience. We’re expected to figure out how to do this on our own. We’re all frustrated with this situation, to say the least. It’s actually giving me PTSD.

My husband and I have been looking for alternative programs where my son could transfer his credits. We’re also at a point where we’re trying to find alternative majors or training for my son, because his interest and confidence in his current major is waning. With his very, VERY narrow set of interests and a huge lack of motivation, this is proving very difficult.

I’ve been suffering from burnout syndrome for a long time, and I’m just so used to it that I truly don’t know how to full relax. I recently read that parents of special needs children that are higher functioning often have more stress than those who are much more dependent. So right now, my stress is so bad that I’m starting to not only do the usual of losing sleep and being grumpy and have the occasional eye twitching, but now my body is throwing in the occasional heart palpitations when I’m not even doing anything that stresses me out. That can’t be good.

So, while I’ve come so far because of the professional support I’ve gotten towards an important part of my life–establishing a solid career, now I have to figure out how to find the support to keep parenting and help my kid so that he can find some success himself.

It’s still a climb to balance this work/life thing. I’ve got the work thing down now, thankfully, and hopefully it stays this way for a long while. But this life thing…UGH.

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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”.


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. 🙂

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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How do we determine the bounds of digital literacy?

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.