Innovating Technical Communication Education

A few years ago, TWi collaborated with Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and other organisations to develop the syllabus for a new postgraduate technical communication program in Information Design and Development. This post tells the story of how it came about.

A version of this article was first published in ISTC Communicator, Autumn 2016, by Siobhán ní Chatháin.

Innovative Design

The idea grew from a conversation between Patrice Fanning, founder of TWi, and Michael Loftus, Head of the Faculty of Engineering & Science at CIT. They envisioned a collaborative engagement between industry practitioners and academic educators. To realise this vision, they sought the input of experts from both the education and industry sectors. and representatives from companies that employ technical writers. They eventually gathered a committee of industry stakeholders from organisations at the coalface of a skills deficit, and began to debate the syllabus.

One area of immediate agreement was the priority need for a core module in XML and DITA. Other areas were more difficult to pin down. Inevitably, accommodating the diverse perspectives of the various industry stakeholders and achieving consensus was challenging. With divergent viewpoints on what to prioritise, decisions on which modules to include, and their relative credit weightings, were not straightforward. The most contentious module concerned human information interaction – how presentation and situation affect usability and shape the user experience. The eventual title, Information Experience, was suggested by one of the stakeholders who encountered this emerging paradigm in California.

One of the most provocative issues was actually naming the program. Patrice recalls how this raised the question, unresolved within the wider professional community:

How we talk about what we do. Should the focus be on information development, technical communication, content strategy, or something else?

Over time, the program took shape. Members of the committee worked with the CIT Registrar’s Office to ensure the quality of the program and affirm its commercial viability. Certification was only granted once it had been demonstrated that the program was up to date, that it met industry requirements, and satisfied a specified set of learning outcomes.

Innovative Delivery

The program comprises a progressive series of modules, offering three potential levels of qualification. This flexible structure allows learners to enter at the level most appropriate to their existing qualifications and experience, and potentially to progress to another level.

Students participate in the program on a part-time basis, and it is delivered online. Each student receives a virtual desktop with a complete virtual infrastructure, and all necessary software pre-installed. Live online lectures are recorded and made available for subsequent playback. Students can interact with their lecturers and peers in online labs through a private cloud environment. Queries and technical issues can be rapidly resolved through the virtual PC, as tutors can login directly and take control of the student’s system. Learning support, resource sharing, and peer collaboration are facilitated through the Blackboard learning management system, and Google Groups.

Before the CIT program was formally rolled out, two of the modules were piloted to a class primarily composed of students nominated by the stakeholder organisations. The pilot allowed the stakeholders to further contribute to the program design, through feedback from these students.

CIT is already at the vanguard of delivering innovative online courses in advanced technologies through its Cloud Academy. It is envisaged that, in future, the Information Design and Development program will serve the educational needs of the international technical communication community.

Stakeholders continue to contribute to the program through guest lectureships. Furthermore, a program review will be carried out every five years. In the context of rapidly changing technology and industry requirements, it is important to check that content remains relevant and advances in tools and methodologies are incorporated. While the mandatory modules are fixed until the review, the inclusion of elective modules means that there is inbuilt flexibility to accommodate additions or alterations in the interim period.

Lessons for Technical Communication

Feedback from participants indicates that they are more concerned with continuing professional development (CPD) than achieving a new educational qualification. Furthermore, participants pointed to programming languages and standards as the area of greatest need for upskilling, followed by project management and quality. The self-identified skills deficit in relation to programming languages and standards amongst these students correlates with the fact that over half of them had come to their technical communication roles from humanities backgrounds.

This corresponds with the findings of a TWi survey conducted at the 2015 TCUK conference, which showed that while the majority of respondents were highly experienced practitioners, accredited professional qualifications were rare. Fewer than a third of respondents had an academic qualification relating to their profession. Typically, rather than holding formal qualifications, respondents brought transferable skills and knowledge to their roles, engaged in on-the-job and self-led learning, and undertook training in specific tools or skills as required.

The CIT course offers a flexible route to CPD. The Information Design and Development program responds to the needs of individuals and their current and future employers. Clearly, industry stakeholders are gaining direct and immediate benefits in terms of the provision of quality CPD opportunities for current employees. Moreover, the technical communication profession more generally is being advanced through the increased provision of third-level education.

The story of the Information Design and Development program at CIT demonstrates that cooperation between academics and industry practitioners can be very fruitful and mutually beneficial in creating an on-going pipeline of talent. The collaborative process through which the program was created may have wider application as a model for further industry-academic initiatives in technical communication.

To find out more about the CIT Information Design & Development program, visit the course page.
Acknowledgements:
Sincere thanks to Donna O’Shea, Jim Young, Nelson Abbey, Anne Horgan, and Patrice Fanning for their contributions to this article.

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