Wednesday, October 31, 2007

If given a bully pulpit...

One of my favorite topics I would like to pursue if I get elected to be an officer of STC is helping technical communication students learn how to use the tools and technologies of our industry. I have been involved in many discussions (some of them heated) over the last year or so that deal with the question, "Should academic techcom programs teach tools?" I think it is a bad question; it misdirects us and inevitably the discussion degrades into finger pointing and everyone ducking for cover.

Let's try a new question. How can the community of technical communicators help students develop tool skills while learning principles of good design? I think this new question has win/win written all over it. It falls into the "economy of abundance" arena, that is, avoid arguing over who gets what proportion of the pie (an economy of scarcity); rather, concentrate on making the pie bigger.

Students want to learn how to use the latest tools (students, heck! so do I). Vendors want to promote their products. Schools want to tout employability as an outcome of their programs. STC wants to increase membership and the value of that membership.

So imagine a scenario where a student is enrolled in an online documentation course. She is told by the professor that one of the requirements of the course is to produce a sample Help file with a specification of what that file should contain (e.g., kinds of topics, TOC, index, specific kinds of links, etc.) Just at the moment the student starts to panic, the professor points out that STC has a tools and technology section on its web site for members (and is equally available to student members). That web site has downloads of demo versions of commercial Help Authoring Tools, competency inventories (hmmm, these look a lot like the spec the professor inlcuded in the syllabus), and tutorials that focus specifically on those competencies. Wait, there's even an e-mail address for student support!
  • Professor is happy: She can focus on design and critical thinking and not on clicks and drags.
  • Student is happy: She has access to a tool and tutorial geared to the critical "getting started" skills a student would be interested in.
  • Vendor is happy: The product is getting into the hands of future buyers and influencers.
  • STC is happy: They are picking up student members with a good chance of converting them to full members after graduation. Plus, there could be some secondary revenue opportunities hidden in all of this.
Make that win/win/win/win.

This will be a pet project of mine if I get elected.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tool training is a thorny issue that many would wish to sidestep because it’s a big investment. The tools are constantly evolving and training content has to change with it, often overnight in the case of a new release. Add to that the fact that this year’s wonder tool could be next year’s obsolete dog. Providing tool training may well be a non- or low-profit venture, when you factor all that in.

It’s great that STC offers downloads and tutorials but I don’t know if that fully addresses the challenge. A student who is completely new to something like online help may need more than just a download and tutorial to get up to speed. I consider myself a pretty fast learner who has used lots of tools over the years but I’ve taken many of tutorials that left me with only a shallow knowledge of the product. If I were an employer, I wouldn’t want to hire me, based on that shallow knowledge alone. I think it takes more face time with a seasoned pro to really learn to use a tool in the optimal way. Someone still has to pick up the tab for that, be it academia, the employer, or the student.