John Stewart, Visiting Instructor of Professional and Technical Communication, will be presenting his paper on “Implementing an XML Authoring Project in a New Media Course” at the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference at Carnegie Mellon University this October. This conference brings together a wide range of technical communicators, engineers, and educators to discuss innovative ways to bring real-world technology projects to the classroom. John’s paper documents his experiences in creating a virtual technical communications lab here at USF for online students and using it to implement a module within his new media course, which successfully introduced students to the basics of XML authoring in a month. This is part of a larger effort to make high-end software available to the online PTC students and train them in practical workplace applications. Learn more about the IEEE Conference here.
My interest in this project goes back to a technical writing contract I worked on in 2008, when I was asked to learn XML authoring and the Oxygen application on the job. This was a short-term contract involving a lot of different document types and applications, so it was necessary to learn all this quickly. I was able to become a productive XML author within a couple of weeks, and I realized this was the direction in which all serious technical publishing had to go; this was the cutting edge and the future for technical communications. I started teaching technical communications shortly after that and it was from this experience that I drew the ideas that advanced technical communications students should be exposed to this technology, and it should be possible to do this within a fairly short time frame–say, a month-long module within a course. This involved a couple of challenges: How to get students access to XML authoring tools, what most-important principles to include in a short module, and how to get these principles across to the students. Compounding these basic challenges was the fact that all my courses are online, so all this had to be accomplished in a way that would serve our online Professional and Technical Communication students.
I kept practicing my elevator speech for the project on anybody who would listen, and during one of these informal conversations Dr. Jane Rose mentioned that there might be some unused server space in the Culinary Innovation Lab, which is primarily for the College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership; someone else put me in touch with the lab manager, Lewis Litchfield; we got together and I explained the idea and requirements to him; and within a couple of weeks Lewis had a virtual lab set up that would allow 25 students plus myself to log onto virtual machines and have access to some very sophisticated software. I put a lot of time and thought into designing the module and incorporating it into my new media course, including recording about eight or ten video tutorials to explain the project and the software, and I tried it with my Spring 2014 new media course.
The whole project was pretty much like jumping off a cliff. I didn’t know how the lab would perform under the pressure of multiple students working on multiple virtual machines, didn’t know whether or not they would be able to make sense of it given the short time frame and the online environment, and didn’t know how the students would perceive the project. I felt the potential benefits far outweighed these uncertainties. In the end, the lab held up, the students were almost all able to learn the basics of XML and related technologies in a short time, and in their post-project blog commentary indicated that they felt it was a worthwhile project. My greatest hope was that they would not only produce creditable work, but would see the real-world connections and potential for these technologies, and their commentary seems to show that they did.
While I was in the midst of creating the XML module for the course, the IPCC had come to my attention via the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing, and it seemed like a perfect showcase for the project. When I submitted the abstract, the reviewers confirmed what I already suspected; that virtually no one has published any models or case studies like this, which connect real-world, cutting-edge technical communications projects and practices directly with the classroom. So I felt this was a niche that I could occupy, given my background. This conference, which is intended to share innovative ideas about teaching technical communications, offers an ideal forum for presenting and discussing these ideas with colleagues from all over the world, generating some enthusiasm for this tools-based approach, and sharing some methods and materials. And of course, talking up our bachelor’s degree in Professional and Technical Communication here at USFSM!