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Online Student Again: Part 1

ipad with handAs I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to bite the bullet and “git me some learnin’ ” in preparation of possible unemployment or breaking out on my own to consult. The big buzz in content strategy for the last year or so has been “content marketing”. From the highest level looking down, I get what it is, but I have no practical experience in marketing, or have true comprehension of some of the components that are important to it. So, I’m taking the Online Mini-MBA course at Rutgers University in Digital Marketing. It seemed to have everything I was looking for in a digital marketing class to fill in the gaps–social media marketing, SEO and SEM practices, YouTube marketing, mobile marketing, etc. (Gee, I sound like Stefan from SNL with that description.)

stefan-snl
Stefan from Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live (SNL) says, “It’s got everything, alright!”

The coursework for this credential is very different from my experience for my MSPTC (Masters of Science in Professional and Technical Communication) at NJIT. With those courses, there was required reading, and each module was released each week (more or less) with set deadlines for online discussion participation and papers. Each week or two, I had to have something to turn in. I don’t remember ever having quizzes or tests, but rather I had lots of assignments to show that a) I could follow directions, and b) could produce something that showed that I comprehended the information.

This mini-MBA is set up rather differently. It is more self-driven as far as the pace goes, with a series of videos to watch that were evidently taken during a recent week-long, in-person crash course of the same material. There is a capstone project at the end that comprises of a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, but I guess I’ll figure out what that entails as I go along. All the modules are available to do from Day 1. I’m not entirely used to that!

So, I just completed the first of ten modules, which was an overview about digital marketing as presented by Dr. Augustine Fou. He gave some easy to understand examples that I could follow along, but at the same time, I had to be grateful for having attended the Intelligent Content Conference and other presentations last year that talked a little bit about content marketing. Otherwise, I would’ve been totally lost or overwhelmed. At least I had a clue about what he was talking about, and again, the examples he used were easy to follow. I took my first quiz, and fortunately, I got a perfect score, and that’s considering that I watched all the videos for this module over two days in my free time, and there were only five questions! At least it’s a good start for now.

I was nervous about starting this coursework–business topics are something that I’m not exactly keen on or particularly good at, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt the pressure of having to do well considering I’ve spent a lot of money to be learning this information, but I think, as I said, I’m off to a good start. I’m truly hoping that after I’m done, it’ll help me speak in marketing language enough that I can potentially get a content marketing job, or at least be able to offer some advice as a consultant.

Onwards to Module 2!

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STC-PMC 2014 Conference – Better than last year!

NJIT's MSPTC program in the house at STCPMC14! L to R: Dr. Bernadette Longo, director of the MSPTC program; Jamil Wilkins, current MSPTC student; Danielle M. Villegas, MSPTC alum and STCPMC presenter.
NJIT’s MSPTC program in the house at #STCPMC14! L to R: Dr. Bernadette Longo, director of the MSPTC program; Jamil Wilkins, current MSPTC student; Danielle M. Villegas, MSPTC alum and STCPMC presenter.

In a nutshell, the 2014 STC-PMC Mid-Atlantic Technical Conference was better than last year, in my opinion! A slightly different format, a different day, more networking, and excellent speakers made for a fantastic event.

Okay, now for more details.

First, having been a member of the conference’s planning committee this year, I know that a lot of work went into making this event a success. Kudos to my fellow volunteers! Special care was taken to choose the best proposals submitted, and it definitely was reflected in the best of the best! There were so many great subjects to choose from that even among the presenters, some were saying to each other, “I want to go to your presentation, but I’m presenting at the same time!” I think some of the attendees also had hard choices to make, since sometimes they couldn’t decide between topics during a given session!

Nicky Bleiel, who is currently the President of the STC, gave the keynote address for the conference. She talked about flexible content with responsive design. The main message of her talk was that with responsive design, technical communicators can create and deliver a single responsive output that will work on thousands of devices, including new devices, old devices, and even ones that don’t exist yet. She showed us a few examples, such as Microsoft and Lycos websites in which the content remains the same, even though the output in different browsers changed to work with the size of a particular browser size. Many companies started making separate mobile sites, but the content was not the same as the full site. Responsive web design is Google’s preferred configuration when ranking sites. Mobile users want content parity, meaning they want everything that desktop owners have, thus they want one Web. Fluid layouts, fluid images, media queries in the coding, and stacking or collapsing grids are the key to creating responsive design.

During the first breakout session, I gave my own presentation, “Blogging Out Loud: The Basics of Blogging,” so I didn’t get a chance to see anyone else’s presentation during that time, obviously.  I did have a lot of people in my room, which pleased me, and we had a great discussion during the question-and-answer time. It was a great group, and smart questions were asked.

After a lunch break filled with awards, volunteer recognition, food, and networking, I chose to attend Todd DeLuca‘s talk about volunteering your way up the career ladder.  Todd kept the presentation fairly open, sharing some of his own insights about volunteering from his personal experiences and how they were able to apply to his professional life. The group attending participated by sharing ideas and experiences themselves about volunteering, bringing about a great conversation. Todd’s main idea was that it doesn’t matter how big or small the contribution, or if the volunteer opportunity is inside or outside of work. The experience fulfills you when helping others, but also fulfills you by allowing you to gain skills and experience that helps yourself. I think one idea he presented resonated with me, which was that volunteering is an offer to help, but it’s also a promise that evolves, as it’s a commitment that is followed through and builds trust. I also liked his point that volunteering is a safe environment to grow because usually there is less risk and some mistakes are expected, so the environment is often more nurturing than work. That’s a great environment to learn! Todd has been volunteering for things inside and outside of his job for years, related to tech comm as well as unrelated, and felt that he’s reaped benefits that apply to where he is professionally. I know that Todd will be speaking at the 2014 Spectrum conference for the STC Rochester chapter in a few weeks, and he’ll also be speaking at the STC Summit on this topic, so I encourage you to attend to get more details and ideas!

The last presentation I saw for the day was by Neil Perlin. Neil and I have known each other through both e-learning and tech comm social media circles for a while now, but hadn’t met before. It was a real treat to meet and chat with him, but to also hear him speak, as I know he’s rather popular on the e-learning and tech comm circuits. Neil’s talk was about emerging technologies, which is a subject he’s excited about and presents frequently. Neil covered a wide range of topics that are currently in use now and look to be expanding in the future. These topics included more mobile content that needs content strategy to steer it, more use of analytics to understand what our users need and use, using social media extensively, augmented reality, wearables, the use of the “cloud” and cloud-based tools. He also stated that there is a need for standards in order to future-proof our materials to avoid problems as technologies come and go, since it’s so hard to predict what will everyone use. He advised us to stay current by going to conferences and staying on top of general business issues and trends. Business issues can kill a technology, so staying current on your company business is a show of tech comm’s support of corporate strategy. His last bit of advice was to review your tools regularly for environmental change, accept the rise of content and social media, don’t denigrate tools in favor of writing, and embrace and help shape change!

After the conference, WebWorks and Publishing Smarter hosted a nice post-conference get-together at the Iron Abbey, a pub-restaurant down the street from the conference venue. It was a great treat of libations, appetizers, and networking further with tech comm peers.

Overall, it was a great experience. I liked the format this year because it felt more relaxed with fewer breakout sessions. Presenters weren’t rushed as they often are at events like these, and more time was allowed for networking with everyone. Perhaps it’s because I’d had a different experience last year as a total newbie that it was so different to me, but I don’t think so. The topics of the conference, the agenda, and the camaraderie of those hosting at the “City of Brotherly Love” came together into a pleasant Saturday of learning. As a smaller, regional conference I think the more intimate setting helped it be a more personalized experience for all, thus it was a big success.

(To any of the fellow speakers I reviewed here–if you’d like to add or correct anything that I summarized here, please feel free to do so in the comments area below!)

If you are in the Philadelphia area next year around mid-March, I highly recommend coming to next year’s STC-PMC Mid-Atlantic Conference. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

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Villegas Views: Why Bother Learning More in Technical Communication?

See on Scoop.itM-learning, E-Learning, and Technical Communications

Danielle M. Villegas‘s insight:

I have a new monthly byline with the STC Notebook blog! Welcome to Villegas Views. Check out this latest entry about continuing education in tech comm.

–techcommgeekmom

See on notebook.stc.org

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A TechCommGeekMom Milestone: A baby blog is now a toddler

WOW!

10KCelebration_041913

I think my little blog just grew up a bit. I not only reached the 10,000 all-time hits mark, but even passed it. For a niche blog that’s 13.5 months old, I think that’s pretty amazing! I’m a proud TechCommGeekMom!

Thank you to every person who’s a regular reader, who just popped in once in a while, or who came only once for a visit. 10,000 all-time hits is a lot! Now, I know of blogs that have definitely had more traffic than me, mostly because they are much more hyper-focused on a particular segment of technical communications, like everything you want to know about a particular type of software, everything you want to know about a particular strategy, or else they’ve been around for a long time, so they’ve built up a following after a while. I do not begrudge these people, as they are my inspiration, and in some ways, they have contributed to this blog too through curated content now and then. TechCommGeekMom wants to be like those blogs as it grows up!

I trust that you enjoy what you read, and that you keep coming back for more. I’d like to think that the variety presented here, mixed with my own eccentric flair, brings about a lot of different perspectives of what technical communications is and what it can be. As I’ve said in the past, this blog started out very small, as a grad school project to build a community via social media, and I chose to work on building my tech comm/e-learning/m-learning community. I’m guessing that perhaps–just perhaps–I may have achieved my goal of creating a TechCommGeekMom community, and yet I hope the family will continue to grow. If you have any suggestions or ideas of things you’d like to see here, or if you’d like to contribute a guest post, please let me know!

Many thanks from the bottom of my heart for helping me reach this milestone! This blog is a labor of love, and it has opened so many doors for me, which I hope continue to open! I truly appreciate the support!

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Instant Mobile Apps? Not quite.

MP900441051Last week, I was in contact with one of my former professors at NJIT‘s MSPTC program. We talked about several things going on, and in the process of the email conversation, she mentioned that she is starting another semester of the PTC 601 (Advanced Professional and Technical Communications) classes, and she asked me a question about mobile, because she wanted to add a new component to an assignment.

I remember doing the assignment well just three years ago. Essentially, the student is given a manual for a fictitious coffeehouse franchise’s espresso machine, and the student has to rewrite the manual into a quick reference guide, preferable something that included visual images that could the learner/user can learn from it or refer to it as needed. Conceptually, it’s an easy enough assignment (or at least it was to me), but creating it with the tools I had at the time proved challenging, even if I did pull it off.

Adding a mobile component to this assignment makes a lot of sense to me. This is a perfect example of what m-learning is, what it looks like, and what it can be! Taking a simple how-to manual and creating a mobile app for it is highly logical, especially in this scenario. I mean, think about it…how often do people whip their smartphones out of their pockets to look up any kind of information, let alone have a how-to app on their phones? So having a special app that could be downloaded and instantly used as a reference guide for that newbie coffee barista would be ideal!

I was happy to hear about this addition to the assignment. The professor knows how enthusiastic I am about promoting mobile solutions, and I was thrilled to hear that she is making an effort to include mobile solutions in the MSPTC curriculum. So, she asked me if I knew any software programs that could convert text into some sort of mobile output. The first thing that came to mind was Adobe’s Technical Communications Suite 4, especially with Framemaker and Robohelp. But, the school doesn’t have a copy of that for students yet (they are working on it), and even with the short trial, there’s a big learning curve for an assignment that would be due fairly quickly.

So, I began to do a little research to help the professor out. There were a few things–a few parameters–that I had to keep in mind as I looked for a tool for her to use. It has to be easy to use for someone who didn’t have too much or negligible programming skills. It has to be free or at the barest minimum of cost. And it had to have an easy ramp-up to have a project done on it in a week or so. I knew, from experience, that people from all walks of life come into this program, with a true mix of web expertise. I remember helping some of my fellow classmates by providing a crash course in HTML, and the quest for the free or cheap web editing software or site where an e-portfolio could be created. So, I understood the parameters well.

The sad thing I discovered was that while there are dozens of places to set up and create free or cheap websites with web editing available that anyone could use to set up a good looking site, the same can’t be said yet for creating mobile sites. There are a few sites that do help a person create a mobile app easily, but it’s not cheap. Or, if it’s cheap, it requires some programming know-how. It was tough. the other thing to keep in mind was whether the mobile app being created was for a “native” app, a “web” app or “hybrid” app. The differences between these is that a native app is saved on the mobile device and can be used offline. The web app is one that is essentially a mini website and needs an internet connection to access the app. A hybrid is…well, you can figure that out. If you’ve ever tried to access an app on your phone, but couldn’t get it to function because you didn’t have wifi or 4G, then that’s a web app. If it only partially worked, but you still needed wifi/4G to connect for part of it, it’s a hybrid. You get the idea. In the end, I gave the professor a few suggestions that I found.

The first was something called Viziapps. I think I had heard of Viziapps because I believe (just off the top of my head) that this was the software being used in an STC class on how to build mobile apps. Viziapps allows individuals to create a mobile app without knowing any or little coding, but they would have to have some idea of information architecture (which is part of the project assignment–understanding what’s important, what’s not, what comes first, content structure, etc.). It’s mostly a visual editor that allows the user to build the apps online, then publish on the web for free, provided the creator has created a web app. If it’s a native or hybrid app, then that has a price. It seems like it might be a viable choice as a tool that would allow for a quicker ramp-up for someone seriously trying to create a mobile app.

Other more creative choices would be using their mobile devices to make something. For example, there is an app called SnapGuide, in which an individual can take photos or video to demonstrate how to do something. Mobile by Conduit might be another possibility, as it’s free, and supposedly has an interface style similar to WordPress.

But then I thought about WordPress,  and I realized that might be another option. TechCommGeekMom is a WordPress website, after all, and it can be read on mobile devices. Basic WordPress accounts are free and fairly easy to use. You can create a “blog” or website on WordPress, and then there’s a setting to create a mobile interface. Here’s a little bit of info about it: http://en.support.wordpress.com/themes/mobile-themes/  It seemed to fit the criteria needed for a mobile app creator/editor, in that it’s free, it has a mobile output (as well as a regular web output), and it provides a primer for content management in the experience.  I thought that if I was still in the class, I’d create several pages on a single WordPress website for different parts of the Guide–similar to the pages and navigation I have here, and then promote the mobile access to the website. It’s not a perfect system, but for quick ramp-up purposes for a fairly small assignment, it seems like it would fit the bill.

I think my former professor appreciated the help, but we both discussed the dilemma that it posed. Why must someone have a programming degree and some cash in order to create a mobile app–whether it be a native, hybrid or web app? Depending on the app, all three formats have their positive and negative aspects to them.  But how does one learn how to use any of these mobile app writer/editor products quickly? There are some great tools out there, I’m not denying that, but for the true beginner or student on a budget who is trying to learn how to create mobile solutions skills as a technical communicator, it’s not that easy. I see a huge business opportunity here (not that I have the time, cash, or enough knowledge to start such a business), but creating a highly user-friendly software program that one’s grandma could create a mobile app for a very low cost would be a fantastic business. It would make even more information accessible to share with others.

It occurred to me later that for the average user, another possibility is another Adobe program that I’ve been using to create and maintain my e-portfolio, called Adobe Muse. It’s a cloud-based app that acts as a very easy UI interface to create websites and mobile apps. I’ve used the website editor, but I haven’t tried the mobile conversion yet there. I believe it’s about $14-15 per month, and you can set up an account at Adobe’s Business Catalyst and create your mobile site that way.  It allows those who have next to no programming skills create something that looks great, but it also allows more advanced users some nice shortcuts to create great sites without having to do all the coding–Muse does it for you.

Perhaps, as mobile solutions become more mature like editing software for desktop interface websites, this mobile app creator problem will go away, and there will be more affordable options. In the meantime, we have to wait or muddle through it all…

If you know of any easy-to-ramp-up mobile app editors, please mention it in the comments below! Share, everybody!