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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.

 

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Music is the ultimate single-sourcing resource

A few years ago, I wrote an article for someone else about how music was used in remixes and mashups, but it never got published. Even so, I was reminded of how music has a lot of reuse due to two events that happened to me over this past weekend.

First, I went to a concert given by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. The pieces that were played were Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s Ninth “Choral” Symphony. About an hour before the concert, the maestro/conductor held a little talk about the pieces, giving some history and other notes about the pieces. He mentioned that both pieces were reflections of the times, in that the music reflected the turmoil that was going on in Europe during the early 19th century. But what also struck me–and what I listened for–was the reuse of music to reflect some of the action or feelings of the time. In the 1812 Overture, for example, they played the original Russian version, which begins with a Russian Orthodox chant. Later, you hear the French National Anthem several times repeated over and over to reflect Russian and French forces at odds. Beethoven also used bits of well-known (at the time) country songs that were reflected in each movement.

Second, I started to watch an excellent program on television about the Beatles. It was on very late, and my husband and I–who are big Beatles fans–got drawn in, but had to turn it off as we needed to get to sleep. But when we did see was fascinating, and it put an interesting spin on their music. The episode was concentrating on how revolutionary the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was. It was the first time any musicians purposely made a studio album that wasn’t meant to be played for touring. This allowed the Beatles a lot of freedom to experiment with sounds that were either repurposes or found a new place. Sometimes it was the instrumentation that was new; sometimes it was the hybridization of two or more different styles. The one piece that they broke apart that captured my attention was “Penny Lane”. “Penny Lane” is about observations around the area where Paul McCartney and John Lennon grew up. Musically, it captured the old vaudeville sound yet at the same time had a pop/rock sound to it, with overtones of baroque as well. The final track included 4 separate tracks of piano, and a host of other instruments like a special piccolo trumpet (I think that’s what it was called, but correct me if I’m wrong), which wasn’t an instrument used often in modern pop music! Another example, although not part of the album but part of the recording period, is “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Did you ever think that the vocal track sounded a little weird, even though it worked? That’s because the main music background track was made on one day at one speed, and the voice was recorded at a different speed on a different day. John Lennon wanted to use both tracks, but they didn’t synchronize well. Because the technology wasn’t there electronically like it is now, sound engineers had to figure out how to change the variable speed on both recordings so that they could get them to synch. That sort of thing didn’t exist until then! Fascinating stuff.

So what does this have to do with content strategy? Everything. Here’s why.

A big part of content strategy is knowing what to keep and what not to keep. Content strategists are always promoting reuse of content to be used in new ways. By mixing and matching content appropriately, you can get a hybrid that is something new and unique to itself. Nowadays, copyright laws can get in the ways, but if they are heeded appropriately, something new and wonderful can be produced. The music world really started to notice when rap and hip-hop started sampling and reusing music, a practice that’s still used today for new music, remixes, and mashups.

What do you think? Did musicians have this figured out well before writers by almost 200 years? Include your comments below.

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9 Recommended Tech Tools for a Conference Attendee

tech organizer for accessoriesI don’t attend as many conferences as some people, for sure. There are those I know who whisk off to different parts of the world to attend such conferences–I’m not quite one of those.  I’m usually going to at least 1-2 local conferences, and 1-2 not local conferences a year on average.  This year, at this writing, I’m only planning on one big conference, and namely that’s the STC Summit in a couple of days.

While I’m on these trips, I usually try to put some careful consideration into what I’m bringing with me. This year, I have my car (an SUV, no less) with me, so I can load up the car as much as I want.  But in other years, like many, I usually have to get on a plane to get to the conference destination, so taking as few things–and lighter items–is necessary.

Liz Fraley wrote an excellent article about a year ago about her Presenter’s Tech Travel Kit, and it’s pretty comprehensive.  I have most of the same items as she does. Some I don’t travel with, and some are items I still desire to add to my travel tech.

But that was written from the perspective of a frequent presenter. What about some recommendations for those who aren’t presenters, but still want to bring some basic tech with them?

I’m looking at this perspective myself, as I’m not a presenter this year. I usually have one big suitcase for clothes, shoes, things I picked up at the conference, but I also need to bring tech, since I am either taking notes, or sharing my experiences on social media during a conference. I’m still developing what works for me best, but there are a few things that I usually bring with me no matter where I go, whether I’m a presenter or attendee. There are also a few (hopefully) clever solutions to help lighten my load, but maintain some good tech.

  1. My iPad/tablet
    My iPad comes with me everywhere. I have a large, 17 inch laptop, and while it’s one of the “lighter” ones, it’s still rather heavy, and it’s a pain (literally and figuratively) to carry places.  In most instances, I don’t need to bring a full laptop computer with me, as I’m only accessing  my word processing programs (Notes or Word) for note taking, I have full access to social media apps, I can still get my email, I still have Skype–I have most of what I need to record what I need and still communicate with the outside world in my iPad.  My iPad is thin, and it’s lightweight. It’s as good as having a paper notebook in size and weight, but better.

    Someday, I hope to be able to afford one of those super sleek, thin, streamlined ultrabooks that I can bring anywhere, but in the meantime, this will do nicely. If you don’t have an iPad, an Android or Fire or other equivalent will probably do just as nicely.

  2. My Wireless Keyboard
    This is an optional one, only because I don’t have an iPad cover that is also a Bluetooth keyboard. But having my wireless Apple keyboard–or for that matter, any Bluetooth keyboard–is great because then you feel like you do have a very compact laptop with you. I keep it in a special case (similar to this one–same manufacturer, older model) that has some extra storage. (Waterfield has some nice travel bags as well.)

    But what if you have to access a “power” program due to a workshop, and there isn’t an app for that? Well, I’ve figured that out too, but it’s on a case-by-case basis (meaning there are some exceptions when I, unfortunately, do have to lug my laptop with me). I hate bringing my laptop just for one workshop or one session, when I know I’m not going to use it for the rest of the conference.  I have a solution that might work for you, and it’s worked for me.

  3. Remote Machine apps
    Yes, if you pick the right one and play with it a little bit first, there are some decent remote machine apps that will connect your tablet (in my case, my iPad) to your laptop at home. You just have to install the app on your iPad, make sure the app is installed on your laptop at home, and remember to leave your laptop on at home before you leave! I’ve played with a few.

    TeamViewer is a popular one. My husband likes that one. It’s free for individual use. There’s also Splashtop. That one, if you are travelling, is about $3/month, but it provides a good connection. I used that last year, and it’s another popular one.

    This year, I’ve switched over to a free one that’s available, and I like this one the best. It’s called VNC Viewer. There’s an app for it on iTunes, and it’ll give you directions on how to make your laptop the “VNC Server”. The beauty of this one is that it’s mostly maintained on the cloud! And it’s free for individuals! I also liked the screen resolution on this one, because it showed what’s on my laptop screen better than the others, and I could get the tapping tasks down easier than the others.  I could access those “power” apps (like various XML editors) from my home laptop from my iPad, and still do the same actions as if I were using my laptop. There might be a few tricks to use it on an iPad, but the work itself is being done on my home laptop. Cool!

  4. Skyroam Personal Hotspot device
    This is a new item that I’ve added to my collection. It’s a personal hotspot that doesn’t work off your phone, and it works internationally in most major countries.  You buy unlimited connectivity passes which last the full 24 hours.  If you buy your passes in bulk, they come out to be about $8 per day, and you can connect up to 5 devices at a time. The device is usually around $100, and comes with 3 free day passes to start. You can also rent them at airports and–I think–through the website at skyroam.com.

    Why would I need that? I bought it for a few reasons. First, during my last international trip, I found I was using the data that I had bought through my phone contract wasn’t enough for when I was out and about. It was a lot of data just trying to pull up a map and figure out where I was going! And wifi wasn’t always perfect trying to glean it off of stores or other public places. This way, in the future, I’d have this small device with me, and not have that problem anymore. Second, when we travel, my son is ALWAYS using up a lot of data so he can play games on his phone. This, again, eliminates the huge cost. The last reason I got it was that even though certain conferences offer wifi services, sometimes, well, they just aren’t great wifi connections.

    Since I do a lot of Twitter feeds and such during conferences, it’s important that I have a solid wi-fi connection. This solves this problem. I used my Skyroam at the CONDUIT conference last month, and it works GREAT.

  5. My Smart Travel Router and International Power Converters
    This one is especially helpful if you are travelling internationally, but I still bring them with me on domestic trips as well.  They not only provide international outlet adapters for other countries, but they usually have 2 USB outlets on them to charge my devices. I use these heavily– I have 3 of these, so I can charge up to 6 devices at a time if needed! One of these three is my smart travel router. The one I own is a Satechi Smart Travel Router, which you can find on various websites to order. If you have access to a network cable, this little device is marvelous. It’s not only a outlet adapter that has USB outlets on it, but it also acts as a mini wifi router when connected to a wired network.

    I’ll give you an example when it came in handy. When I went to IEEE ProComm, I stayed at one of the dorms at the University of Limerick. They had no wifi available in the rooms. HOWEVER, they did have network outlets. All I did was connect my networking cable to that outlet, plugged the other side into this Smart Router, and VOILA! I was the only one who had wifi! I was able to talk to my family on Skype at night and check on other things that required internet connectivity.

  6. Battery packs/Power banks

    Portable batteries/power banks come in all sizes. I actually bring three– two small ones and a big one. Why? I don’t want to be lugging a charging cord and power adapter for my iPad or my phone and trying to be near the nearest outlet.  These batteries can easily charge overnight, so I will charge the big one (which has two outlets for two devices) one night while I use the smaller two, and then switch off the next day.You can find smaller ones under US$10, and some of the larger, more powerful ones can get to cost as much as $70. Pick what’s whatever in your budget, and you’ll find it’s handy to have just in case. My two little ones were gifts, whereas my bigger one is one I bought for about US$25-30.  You can get fairly powerful ones these days, and find them almost anywhere that they sell phone and tablet accessories.
  7. Cables/Power Cords
    This is an obvious one. You can’t charge any of these devices up with a plug, battery, car power adapter, or wall power adapter unless you have all the right cables and cords! I always ensure that I have one for each device (for me, that’d be 2 Apple lightning cords), and at least 1-2 USB-C cords that will charge the battery packs. Sometimes you can get a power cord that powers multiple devices–a multi-port cord. I have one of those that one of the vendors gave out at a past conference that works beautifully, even with my fickle i-Devices. I keep them all together in a Skooba Design cable wrap case so I can find them easily, and it’s compact. (Skooba Design also has some nice travel bags as well.)
  8. Earphones of some sort
    I tend to bring a few things redundantly, so I do bring my regular Apple earphones with me, but I also bring my fancy Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones with me as well. The second ones are for the noise cancelling feature. Sometimes I just need to tune out, you know? (Introverts, take note!)
  9. Extra batteries
    If my Apple keyboard or the noise cancelling feature of my Bose headphones die, then I have at least one set of backup batteries (2-AAs, 1-AAA) with me. I keep them in the small case I keep my keyboard in.

That seems to cover the basics of what I find I need as a conference attendee. I don’t run out of power. I have something to take notes electronically or connect to the outside world. I have devices to help me connect to the Internet. I’m pretty much set, and it can all easily fit in my messenger bag or backpack, and still have room in my bag to collect some goodies from the Exhibition Hall.

As a presenter, I think the only other things I would bring would be some sort of an A/V adapter (see Liz’s article for suggestions–I just hook up my iPad with my adapter, and I’m good), or as is often suggested, I bring a thumb/flash drive with my presentation on it–just in case.

Between my list and Liz’s list, can you think of other devices, tools, or other tech accessories that you find that you absolutely need to bring with you to a conference? 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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2016 TechCommGeekMom Year in Review: Yeah, it could’ve been better.

Bored girl expressing, "Seriously though, do you think it could've been worse?"
Seriously though, do you think it could’ve been worse?

As 2017 gets going, I realized that I haven’t written a whole lot in the past year. Why? Simple–not a whole lot to write about, frankly. 2016 was a rough year in many ways, but there were some good elements, too.

It’s hard to write about things when you feel like nothing is inspiring you or giving you little motivation. I remember feeling excited about tech comm for the first few years, and it was much easier, as I was learning new things constantly. Now, while there is still a lot for me to learn, it’s not quite as much in some instances. It’s probably like anything else, in that movements go in waves, and the mobile wave first took hold right about the time I started to study tech comm and get involved in tech comm. Now, it’s something that we take for granted, like electricity or running water in developed countries. There are still things to discover, but the wave of innovation and adapting to the changes to those innovations–both professionally and socially–have generally passed. We’ve adapted, for the most part.  The use of mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets are common place now. Almost everyone has a smart phone. And many companies–not all, but most–have adapted their content and UX to have responsive design to adapt to different devices.  E-learning has gone back to basics with m-learning by re-adapting chunking and also using responsive design and better UX.

From my view, the initial thrill is over, and we are now settling into the “new normal”.   Things that were new and exciting have now become everyday, or have morphed into what they will be. For example, when social media really started to take off, it was an opportunity to create content that could be shared easily in sound bytes or blurbs in a more viral manner than conventional media. It was an opportunity to use content to incite a two-way conversation to discuss and share. Now, social media strategists don’t use social media for discussion, but rather as another marketing medium. Content strategists have been…shall we say…strongly encouraged to look at content as a marketing asset, and look towards content marketing. Content marketers, however, are not content strategists who have some understanding of marketing, but rather it’s expected that they are full-fledged marketers that have some understanding of content. (Trust me. I’ve read the job descriptions posted for many companies.) Both social media and content marketing are things I looked at doing seriously with my career. But as time went on, it was apparent that corporate expectations were shifting, and that these jobs were really meant for business people who were marketers and trained in marketing, not technical communicators. While I have some good sense about business, marketing, and customer service after many years, I don’t consider myself a business person per se. In other words, I would never get an MBA because business topics bore the hell out of me, and there are others who can look and do that sort of thing better than me.

This past year was a year of experimentation for me. When I got out of grad school almost five years ago, I wanted to be an instructional designer until I found that there was no such position as an entry-level instructional designer. I fell back into doing what I had done for years, but with stronger knowledge and experience, which was content strategy and management. I’d been happy doing that work, but always wanted to expand my skills. When I was released from my long-term contract doing content management in 2015, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different. I could start over, if you will. I was hired to do a knowledge management job, but the position was a misnomer. It really didn’t do anything close to knowledge management, and in the end, the projects they had brought me on board for were cancelled, and my contract ended in early 2016.

I was able to pick myself up quickly, taking a copywriting technical writer position. While I definitely had the ability to do the job, I found that my best writing abilities and UX/UI skills couldn’t be used to their fullest potential. I’m used to writing more than two sentences at a time, or re-labeling a button using a single word. I knew I had more to offer than what was required with no opportunities to contribute more than that, so I let that contract expire.

After trying those two other avenues, I found a short-term job doing content strategy and management again. Oh, it was exciting for me! I felt so comfortable doing that kind of work, and I felt confident again in my abilities. I was right to trust my instincts–that there was more to me than writing two sentences at a time, and doing something that I like doing. That, in itself, was a big discovery.

So, through this period of self-discovery, it was rough. I was unhappy with the work I was doing, unhappy with my lack of progress in a positive direction professionally, began to doubt my professional self-worth, and felt conflicted about next steps. Okay, so I’m still working through some of it, but I think the worst is (hopefully) over.

This isn’t to say that it’s all been bad. From those events, I can say that I learned what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. I learned what I like and don’t like. I started to have a better understanding of my self-worth, at least professionally. Those are big realizations in themselves.

There were also other good things that happened that proved to be positive challenges. I had post-weight loss surgery, and recovered from that well. I’d never had major surgery in my life (and will be avoiding it in every way possible in the future), and found strength within myself to recover quickly and push myself.  I attended three conferences in 2016, namely CONDUIT, TC Camp – East, and the STC Summit. All went well, and it gave me a chance to learn and reaffirm my passion for tech comm, meet and network with old and new colleagues, and remind me that this is the profession where I belong.  I got more involved in my local STC chapter, and now I’m the vice-president of the chapter, and working my way up the STC food chain, as one might say. I’ve been in charge of STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter’s programming this year, and I’m also co-chair of their conference, CONDUIT, so it’s been very busy for me that way as well, as I gain some new soft skills–and enhance ones I already had.

The election outcome put me in a very bad funk for the latter part of 2016. Dealing with my teenage autistic son has been more challenging than ever. End of the year holidays also don’t put me in a happy mood, usually. It’s usually a stressful time on a number of levels, and I couldn’t wait for the year to be over.

While in many respects, the start of 2017 is a chance to start fresh again, it’s an artificial starting point. I say that because we can start over fresh anytime we want to, if you think about it. It could be in the middle of August, or the end of March, or anytime, really. But with the stress of the holidays and year-end activities, January 1st was as good a date as any to start over, and it’s not something that is only on one day.  Fresh starts can take days, weeks, or months. I’ve made some big decisions going forward that will take some time. I will need to be more patient with myself in achieving those goals. I am going to have many challenges, but I have support from my family and my colleagues to move forward in the direction I am intending.

The number one thing that I’ve decided that I need to do in 2017 is I have to get to a place in my life where I can be happy with what I do, and do what I enjoy.  That’s easier said than done. To that end, I’m going to focus more on building up my independent consulting business, which I had intended to start after that long-term contract ended in 2015. I got majorly side-tracked in 2016, so 2017 is going to be focused on getting back on track with that. No agency contract distractions like in the past year. I’m going to do it on my own, using entrepreneurship and networking skills. It may be slow going to start, but I have a few good leads so far. Time will tell if they work out successfully. I know I’ll put my full efforts into any projects I do get. I’ll also be learning, both independently and with help, how to run a successful business.  Hopefully, this will encourage the spark for me to write here more often about things that are going on that I see in tech comm, and how I view things that I’m learning in the process. I had a recent head-start with my adventures in learning DITA. My initial plans are to continue to train and practice using DITA. I’m also going to be learning Drupal next month, as that seems to be a widely used CMS in my area with some of the leading employers in the area. I’m hoping that adding DITA and Drupal to my “arsenal” of skills will be helpful for my business. I’ll attending CONDUIT and the STC Summit for sure this year, strengthening my professional ties and knowledge. I’ll be working hard still for the STC-PMC, as I intend to run for President of the group this year (we’ll see how that goes!).

Outside of my professional life, there are some hurdles along the way as well, but my goal this year is, well, to get through this year unscathed, or better off than I am now. I don’t mean just financially or professionally, but personally as well. It’s going to be a rebuilding year, and I hope that this time next year, I’ll be a little more upbeat about things, and I will have been able to share more with you over the course of the year.

What are your professional goals this year? Include your comments below.